Paul Pogba’s eternal struggle to justify his own price-tag has been a recurring subject of discussion throughout the 2016/17 Premier League season.
In terms of his own profile, Pogba has marketed himself as audaciously as you’d expect of the most expensive footballer all time; his return to Manchester United announced by rap star Stormzy, his own personal emoji plastered across advertising boards during the Manchester Derby, and his haircuts changing on a weekly basis. In the ignorant age of social media trends and Twitter feuds, Pogba is quickly establishing himself as the new David Beckham – football’s transcendent Rockstar.
On the pitch, however, Pogba certainly hasn’t convinced everybody that he deserves to be the world-record signing. In fact, at this point, many would argue United paid as much for the Pogba brand as they did the footballing entity, falling for the hype, the social media presence and the age-old trap of making a ludicrously expensive statement signing to create the aura of power in the transfer market, rather than focusing on the weaknesses in his game that were always evident during four affluent years at Juventus.
Make no mistake, though, Pogba was always an exciting enigma in the Old Lady engine room; a powerful presence, a daring dribbler, a tricky technician and a goal threat from long-range. Aged 23 at the time of his big-money move, it’s almost as if Manchester United assumed hanging a world-record fee around the France international’s neck would serve as the catalyst to transform his obviously enormous potential into unequivocal world-class ability. It was anticipated goals like the self-set-up half-volley he thundered in off the inside of the post against Napoli in 2013 would become increasingly common occurrences at Old Trafford.
In fairness, we have seen a loose imitation of that goal – the strike against Swansea City in November, during what was one of Pogba’s most dominant performances of the season. Yet, that is one of the few examples in which the midfielder has affected games in the way you’d expect of an £89million player, providing the skill and excitement such a price-tag obliges. In that sense, Pogba’s profile has arguably worked against him; his performances have lacked the glamour he’s often laden in off the field and that contrast has lead to accusations of under-achievement.
Even for those not expecting Pogba to directly influence the scoreline so regularly, there has been something disappointing about the Frenchman this year. He’s struggled to control games from the middle of the park – United’s main man in that sense has been the terrier-like Ander Herrera – and has often demonstrated a worrying immaturity in his decision-making and tactical discipline, with and without the ball respectively. That has created a whole separate debate over what type of midfielder Pogba actually is and subsequently, what players and what systems are required to get the best out of him.
Yet, when compared to the rest of the Premier League, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more effective creative-minded central midfielder in the division this season. Indeed, despite the animosity shown towards the world-record signing, he ranks in the top four from the 23 central midfielders to make more than 25 Premier League appearances in that position this term for goals, assists, key passes, passes, successful dribbles, fouls won, shots and aerial duels won based on per-game metrics.
No doubt, statistics can never tell the full story and for every piece of data suggesting the criticism thrown Pogba’s way has been harsh for the most part, there are counteracting returns, ranking first for inaccurate short passes, shots off target, unsuccessful touches and times dispossessed per match. But that’s part of the parcel of Pogba’s style and what makes him such a unique entity in central midfield. He’s a risk-taker; someone who tries to create moments of magic rather than waiting for the opportunities to come to him. Perhaps that’s to his detriment more often than not, but it also makes Pogba a rare proposition for opponents and on his day, a particularly troublesome one.
Of course, United fans will want to see a greater consistency in Pogba next season and more telling moments – like his opening goal in the Europa League final. But once again, it feels as if we’re being a little harsh. Pogba’s hit the woodwork the second-most times of any Premier League player this season, five, and if those efforts had all seared into the net after colliding with the frame of the goal, he’d have nine goals to show from his first full campaign in the Premier League. That kind of return would likely have many of Pogba’s doubters thinking twice right now, about the heights his performances could reach by the end of next season rather than the depths his inconsistencies could drag him to.
There are little room for ifs and buts in football, but one thing we can be fairly certain about is the impact Fassou Pogba’s passing would have had on his son. The Manchester United midfielder has not only had to contend with his father’s death over the last few weeks, but also an illness he’d been battling for some time prior. Players are so far removed from society these days it’s easy to forget they’re humans too. That feels especially true in Pogba’s case, as the most expensive and one of the highest profile footballers in the modern game, whose performances have been so fiercely debated this season.
And interestingly, Pogba’s absence towards the end of the campaign, in part due to his father passing away, has highlighted how important he’s become to this United side. Without him, the Red Devils lost to Arsenal and Tottenham and could only manage draws against Swansea and Southampton. That’s no anomaly either; United’s overall win rate this season drops by 4% when the 24-year-old isn’t in the starting XI and their only Premier League victory without him came against relegated Middlesbrough in March. They often say you become a better footballer when you’re not in the side, and that appears to be the case with Pogba.
Undoubtedly, however, next season will be when opinions on Pogba become almost irreversible, whether he’s worthy of being the world’s most expensive player or whether United have overspent on a footballer who offers more off the pitch than on it. But ahead of what will be the most definitive campaign of Pogba’s career, it’s important to keep an open mind. He hasn’t been as bad as many would have you believe and unfortunate circumstances have conspired against him. Likewise, if United hadn’t paid so much for him last summer, most would likely brand him a good signing.
Nonetheless, next season will be the ultimate test of whether Pogba can meet those dizzying expectations.