Paul Pogba has been held back by Manchester United - they need more players like him
Has Paul Pogba been as disappointing as some of his critics suggest following his world record move to Manchester United? Daniel Harris digs a bit deeper.
United will be relieved that Pogba is available for what is probably their most important game since Alex Ferguson retired, but despite his competitive charisma and improvisational instinct, not everyone is convinced by him. Partly, this is because of how much he cost – though he had accomplished more than most other players for whom the British transfer record has been broken. And partly, this is because of how much he earns – an admittedly snide ruse given the peanuts paid to the top entertainers in every other cultural milieu, all the more so given football’s financial troubles, and even further, his intention to insult soldiers and nurses. On top of that, he also has the audacity to enjoy his life despite being a young black male, dares to ignore the opinions of people he’ll never meet, and labours under the pathetic misapprehension that there is more to life than football. He is vile.
There are also those with reservations relating to his on-pitch activity, reservations exacerbated by his performances for France at last summer’s European Championship. And it is true that he is capable of better. But it is also true that Didier Deschamps, a manager who deemed Andre-Pierre Gignac of greater use than Anthony Martial, messed him about positionally – and even then, Pogba was definitive in the quarter-final and created the clinching goal in the semi with a frankly murderous display of footwork.
At Juventus, on the other hand, his team had been set-up to suit him – it was almost as though Antonio Conte and Max Allegri knew what they were doing. But then Pogba left to join United, discovered a timid, dysfunctional team, and amazingly, things changed.
Not in the first instance – on his debut he rampaged all over Southampton with a simple brilliance that overrode the deficiencies around him. Eventually, though, and like Angel di Maria before him, he was soon sinking in stodge, on the pitch for every minute of every game despite having played through the summer and missed pre-season.
In the meantime, Jose Mourinho tinkered, scarcely disguising his disgust at his inheritance. Mainly, he used Pogba in front of the back-four alongside Marouane Fellaini, leaving him exposed and with no platform from which to express himself. In such context came his first big-game failure, against Manchester City’s midfield three of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne; it was not especially his fault.
At various points Fellaini was replaced by Ander Herrera – eventually, he became a regular – and when all other options were exhausted so too did Michael Carrick. At last the team was configured to extract the maximum from its best player, and immediately, United improved; if only Pogba had previously made absolutely, implacably, expletively clear what he needed to extract the maximum from his ability. If only.
With Herrera scuttling about and Carrick supplying early, quality ball, United convinced for the only time this season. In the league, they beat Swansea easily but three careless draws followed – Pogba was dominant in the first of those, against Arsenal, and was consistently crucial in the six straight wins that came next.
Paul Pogba and Wayne RooneyGetty Images
But the team lost fluency over Christmas, and then in January Carrick was harried out of games by both Liverpool and Hull. Not the best under pressure even in his prime, he was quickly dropped, and with United struggling to score, Pogba was shunted back in a deeper role to allow for the inclusion of an extra attacker.
Sometimes he came off, because wherever he starts a game standing, he is still very good – “the LeBron James of football, impressive even when you didn't notice him,” says Giorgio Chiellini, who should know. Except Pogba is really there to do stuff which makes it impossible not to notice him, a free spirit who it's pointless hampering with excessive obligation. The problem is that he plays in a poor team, so because he can do everything, finds himself trying to, which is to say that United need more players like him, not fewer. They would be far better-placed if they could pick a midfield of Pogba, Pogba and Pogba.
What Pogba also has – occasionally to his detriment but mainly to his benefit – are balls as brass as his neck. These were in evidence when he decided to leave Old Trafford, a bold decision given that he hadn’t proved himself ready for the first team but was earmarked for it. So Alex Ferguson worked through his scales, first bullying, then cajoling and finally rewarding; Pogba remained impervious to it all. He then embraced Juventus, left when he fancied, and joined the club at which he’d have most responsibility and scrutiny.
Manchester United's Michael Carrick (L) and Paul Pogba celebrate with the trophy after winning the EFL CupReuters
This attribute also manifests on the pitch. A ballet dancer on stilts, Pogba plays with risk, joy, attitude and imagination. When things are not going well he does not hide, and when he does not start well it does not mean he will not play well – against Southampton in the League Cup, Chelsea in the league and Anderlecht in the Europa League, for example, he grew increasingly influential over the course of the game.
Nonetheless, he ought still to have done better. Though the incompetence of his team-mates, both in movement and finishing, has done him out of some spectacular assists, he has also missed some fine chances himself and been too quiet too many times. But next season he will be better, with better players around him, a summer's rest and a pre-season; criticism that he was not worth the money fails to note that the fee is literally amortised over the length of a five-year contract. And in any event, he is already one of the Premier League’s best midfielders.
Though it is clear why Mourinho has been so loth to give him a break, schlepping him through 90 minutes at St Etienne in defence of a three-goal lead was surely a mistake, and he might also have been excused the trip to Rostov. Or, if the Europa League was United’s priority, some other game some other time; it seems more than plausible that his two injuries this season were a consequence of overplaying. And in his absence, particularly this last week, his team-mates have found it impossible to play through midfield, or even vaguely well. They will expect a performance from him tonight, and also know that he will expect the same from himself.