As Paul Pogba delivered a routine answer to a question on international duty, little did he know that it would be spun into another storm. Interpreted as ‘another’ attempt to orchestrate a move away from Manchester, his comments were smeared across the internet and social media. But did he actually say anything bad? And why is he always subject to so much scrutiny?
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But the quotes were pounced upon, twisted to paint a man dissatisfied with life at United. The interviewer was forced to come out and defend Pogba, saying he had not, as some suggested, slated United and was simply expressing disappointment at his own performances.
Which is understandable. Pogba hasn’t had a good season. From being top scorer in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first part-season in charge, he’s now relegated to the bench all too frequently, his rare highlights this season coming in the Champions League wins over PSG and Leipzig. Now with Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek for competition, Pogba’s status at Old Trafford has never looked less certain.
But are the expectations too high? And have the odds always been stacked against him?
Paul Pogba takes on Bruno Fernandes | Portugal v France
Image credit: Getty Images
WHO IS PAUL POGBA?
Pogba’s greatest weakness is that he isn’t the player you expect.
And expectations were high, very high, when he returned to Manchester for £89 million in 2016 – a fee that promised match-winning performances in abundance. Finally, United had their catalyst, a player capable of dragging them back to their perch in the Premier League. The fact he was a central midfielder who thrived on having good players around him was conveniently, or rather inconveniently, ignored.
Pogba didn’t pick his own price tag, nor did it come with an asterisk that it not only reflected his talents as a footballer, but also his unavoidable commercial appeal. He had a huge social media following and bags of charisma – the off-pitch margins to United were obvious. But for many, that £89m had to be repaid on the pitch. And for a player whose strengths weren’t easily measurable like goals and assists, it was an impossible ask.
Although United had just beaten Crystal Palace to win the FA Cup, the side that Pogba first slotted into had just finished 15 points adrift of Leicester City in the Premier League and bowed out at the Champions League group stage. Jose Mourinho had also arrived but this was a team in transition, not one ready for a title tilt. As time progressed, an aging Wayne Rooney and anti-aging Zlatan Ibrahimovic were replaced by Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. As these new faces faltered, and then departed, the blame began to mount at Pogba’s door. Where was the return on the heavy investment? And why were United still a bit average?
But we had wrongly assumed that his upbeat social videos, elaborate hairstyles and trademark celebration would be mirrored in his football. As Maxime Dupuis from Eurosport France explains, Pogba is at his best when he strips the game back. And that can only happen when he has a solid team around him.
"Paul Pogba repeated years ago ‘I want to win the Ballon d’Or’. For us, we have the feeling that he is not this kind of player. Not that he’s not good enough. But that’s he’s better when he plays simple or in a collective team," says Dupuis.
"He’s a shining person and a star, but Pogba the footballer is better when he’s efficient. What he did during the last World Cup [which France won in Russia] was crazy but not flashy. It’s the best version of Pogba."
Paul Pogba reacts for Manchester United
Image credit: Getty Images
Sadly, in our attention economy, the best version of Pogba will never be enough until United have fixed their problems, chiefly their nightmare defence and search for a true No.9.
Football is now boiled down to a single moment, leaving forwards and midfielders judged by a simple question: how many goals and assists? But that’s not how the game works. Sure, the man or the woman claiming the final touch will grab the headlines, but they are no more important than those involved in the build-up, than those ensuring a foothold in a game. The problem Pogba has is that he cost £89m.
Under such scrutiny, and unrealistic expectations, is it any wonder than he has cut such a confused figure of late? That he has drifted out of contention at United? As shown with his understated role in France’s World Cup win, Pogba is at his best in a decent team. Keeping things simple, but still classy, and occasionally stepping up with magic when the moment allows (à la his goal in the final against Croatia).
Pogba should have been a puzzle piece at Old Trafford, not the puzzle piece. As Dupuis concludes:
"It’s when he’s not labelled the messiah that he’s at his best. Give him a good framework and he will be the best. That’s what he has in France, with Didier Deschamps, with his teammates. And maybe not at Manchester United.
"I think there is a misunderstanding as to what Pogba is really."
French speakers, dive deeper into the Pogba debate with Maxime Dupuis and Martin Mosnier on Eurosport France's Team Stream