An inevitable consequence of being the most expensive footballer of all time, to say Paul Pogba has been under the spotlight since returning to Manchester United would be a bit of an understatement. Every wayward touch and misguided pass has been scrutinised with greater intensity than most applied to the Brexit debate, whilst the alumni of pundits joining the anti-Pogba brigade has increased with every unspectacular performance – the latest being Chelsea’s Frank Lampard.
The Blues legend certainly knows a few things about being an effective Premier League midfielder. In fact, he knows the position inside-out and in terms of the Frenchman’s massive price-tag, Lampard certainly raised a valid point on this week’s edition on Monday Night Football – it’s still not clear what kind of player Pogba really is, and he’s still a little short of being the finished article.
“I’m still wondering, what’s his best position? What kind of player is he? What does he want to be? I feel a little bit like he has fallen in between everything. When you pay £90m you want to see results, and he hasn’t quite delivered. He’s young and he possibly will do, but as it stands he hasn’t been a game-changer. “We need to give him time. We need to flip forward to next season and see if he’s improving his game. But at some stage he has to be that dominant midfield player because I do believe that’s in him. The problem for me is that if you spend £90m, you don’t want a £90m problem.”
But Pogba’s price-tag is inevitably a bit of a red herring. It’s likely that fee will be gazumped this summer and probably spent on a more attacking player, who will have copious more opportunities to justify it by directly affecting the scoreline. There was a misconception of Pogba being a marauding midfield goalscorer like Yaya Toure before he returned to England, but he never scored more than ten goals in a single season during his four years at Juventus and in truth, the 24-year-old’s real selling point is stretched across a variety of attributes – his size, his power, his pace, his aggression, his passing and his flair.
Likewise, the stats don’t back up the idea of Pogba struggling to deliver for the Red Devils. He actually ranks first throughout United’s squad for key passes, passes and successful dribbles per match, whilst he’s also in the top four for assists, goals, and shots per game. Likewise, Pogba’s relationship with arguably the most important player in the Red Devils’ starting lineup this season, talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is only bettered by Wayne Rooney – three assists for the Swede as opposed to four.
“We have to be positive, the players were phenomenal but Pogba was by far the best player on the pitch. He was a giant on the pitch. After him, all my other boys were fantastic.”
That justifies Mourinho’s continual defence of Pogba over the last week, describing him as the best player on the pitch against Chelsea, and his apparent bemusement at the criticism pundits continue to throw his way. But accusations of jealousy over how much the France international earns smacks of protesting a little too much – and there’s certainly a reason for that.
“It is not his fault that some pundits are in real trouble while Paul is a multi-millionaire. I feel that the world is losing values and I am scared about the level of envy coming in. It is not Paul’s fault that he gets 10 times the money some players did in the past. Paul reached the top and nobody gave him anything. I am really worried about the way things are going with previous generations. Envy is everywhere.”
As we all know, statistics never tell the full story and Pogba’s biggest struggle this season has been controlling games, either via the ball or his imposing 6′ 3″ frame. He has taken certain fixtures by the scruff of the neck, performances against Crystal Palace and West Ham particularly coming to mind, but he’s failed to do it consistently and against top quality opposition.
Indeed, against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City this season, Pogba has fallen short of what you’d expect from a £90 million midfielder – the added issue, of course, is that these are the televised games that most will formulate their opinions on.
Tactically, Pogba still seems a little naive and there’s certainly some weight to the argument that he lacks footballing common sense, attempting mazy dribbles or difficult balls when a simple sideways pass would maintain momentum and allow him to find space going forward. Positionally too, he’s been caught out more than once this season – starting with the Manchester derby at the beginning of the campaign, when he was miles upfield for Kevin de Bruyne’s goal.
The worry is that Pogba’s not a young player anymore – he’s 24 and should be hitting the patch in his career when he’s beginning to run games as much with experience and intelligence as his ability. But there is an explanation for that; he was the youngest member of a highly talented, highly experienced Juventus midfield where others called the shots. He was allowed to play more instinctively, because the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio were doing the orchestrating for him.
But Pogba still has time to learn and the fact he’s unfinished does make him more adaptable from Mourinho’s perspective. He can forge Pogba into whatever United need; a deep-lying playmaker, an attacking midfielder, a box-to-box destroyer. But there’s still clearly some work to be done, especially defensively.
Nonetheless, you wonder whether Pogba would be receiving the same criticism if he’d cost half of what United paid. ‘World’s most expensive player struggles to deliver’ is an easy way to keep selling stories and to have your voice heard across the world. Regardless of price, most Manchester United fans still regard the 24-year-old as a solid addition to their midfield. The stats back that up as well – it’s just a matter of whether Pogba can find that ability to start controlling games against United’s biggest rivals.