Frank Lampard pulled no punches when discussing Paul Pogba on Sky Sports last week. Lampard described the Frenchman as a ‘problem’ for Manchester United and his former manager Jose Mourinho. On Monday Night Football, the former Chelsea midfielder said, ‘If you spend £90m, you don’t want a £90m problem’. Pogba has – as one would expect for a signing of his value – been one of this season’s great talking points, and the size of his price tag hasn’t been far from the discussion.
Criticism has flooded in and, as is often the case, it has sometimes been far off the mark. Time to adapt is only fair and Pogba has had a relentless schedule over the last 18 months. Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Didier Drogba and countless others have all experienced severe criticism in the first season after big money transfers, for instance. Mourinho has tinkered constantly with his role, not rotated him and he has been playing in a turbulent side that has lacked identity for much of the campaign.
The trouble is, a fee of that magnitude means that people will demand Pogba wins Manchester United matches single-handedly. While his form has not been as poor as many have suggested and missed chances have meant some of his better performances have been overlooked, Pogba has not delivered in the moments when he has been needed most. This was once again evident as Manchester United slumped to FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge on Monday night.
One notable difference between the Pogba of 2016/17 and the edition that sparkled for Juventus last season is his mobility. His burst of pace over the first few yards to create space seems to have almost vanished and a bulkier upper body has left the Frenchman looking cumbersome at times. Assuming this is a deliberate altering to his physique, Pogba has changed his build to that more appropriate for a midfielder destroyer than a box-to-box, goal-scoring, goal-creating superstar.
Without that sharp acceleration to leave his man behind, Pogba has lost an edge in the middle third. His power is irresistible and he is one of the best in the league at protecting possession but, as Lampard said, retaining the ball and spreading the play is not sufficient from a player of his talent and price tag. The moments of magic that make Pogba one of the world’s most marketable players have been rare this season. Down in part to management and a player still finding his feet in a new league, the Frenchman is yet to perform like a world record signing.
Pogba’s versatility is costing him and his club. A player of that cost and skillset should be having the team built around him. Instead, Mourinho is unsure what he wants from Pogba. Used as a deep-lying sprayer of passes, the engine of the team or even just off Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the uncertainty of his position is only making the adaptation harder. Being able to use him in a number of roles is beneficial to Mourinho, but his main role in the side must be defined if he is to really settle and reach his potential as the best player in the world.
Lampard was not far from the mark, in truth. He is not quite a problem for Mourinho, but until they find a way to bring the best out of him without compromising the performances of the team as a whole Manchester United will be growing in concern.
I have staunchly defended Pogba for much of this campaign, as any player deserves time, let alone someone his age. Time, though, will not be awarded by many others for much longer. The mammoth fee was largely because of his sky-high potential, which is why how he performs at the start of next season after a summer rest will be definitive to his career at the club.
Players having to ‘justify’ their fee is a shallow, pointless concept considering how fees come about. Pogba, however, will never get away from how much he cost Manchester United and must, with the help of Mourinho, show he can become one of the best midfielders in the world sooner rather than later.
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