Paul Pogba: 27 years old and less clarity than ever
Once touted as the most gifted player of his generation Paul Pogba recently turned 27 with more confusion than ever over his career. Eurosport Italy's Simone Eterno tries to use the past to learn where Pogba's at right now...
For some time now it feels as if we have seen his name more on the internet, social media and newspaper than we have on our TVs and radios. Paul Pogba is now 27 and this season he has spent more time in the transfer gossip mill than on the pitch.
And this isn't even down to choices of his manager. Quite the opposite. It's an ankle, his right one to be precise, that has kept him out of the picture with three injuries to it. His total minutes on the pitch this season? 610. That's not even seven full games. This has been one of the most difficult years of the Frenchman's career although even when under the knife, or in a hospital bed he's still managed to travel the world. And perhaps right there, we have one of the chief misunderstandings connected with Pogba. Namely that despite being a 27-year-old World Cup winner and clearly an exceptional talent he can still be considered a mystery as a footballer.
Paul Pogba: The nature of a prime number
In fact even for a unique individual Pogba has his own level of uniqueness. He is universally recognised and treated as one of the greatest yet the narrative remains inconsistent, with many still believing that, between his own faults and uncontrollable situations around him, he has yet to really show his best. When you factor in his incredible social media presence, the superstar aura, notorious agent and a reported attitude everything about Pogba would appear to suggest clubs should stay away.
For example, if Manchester United fans are to be believed "spoiled" and "insignificant" would be two of the most popular words used to describe the midfielder. Yet if the higher-ups at Old Trafford put Pogba on the market tomorrow there would be a flood of clubs joining the auction. So the question you have to ask is why is this the case? You already know the answer, because Paul Labile Pogba, in the eyes of so many, has yet to show his best.
: Paul Pogba of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal FC at Old Trafford on September 30, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom.Getty Images
Manchester Chapter: The troublesome problem solver
When Pogba returned to Manchester he was supposed to be the one who solved everything, the one who would help take Manchester United back to the very top of world football. Unfortunately things at Old Trafford have not gone according to plan. Jose Mourinho's stint in the dugout was a long time coming but didn't end with the success many dreamed of, both in terms of trophies and his relationship with Pogba.
Beyond what has happened off the pitch - which is important yes, but not fundamental - in the Manchester United midfield Pogba has been proven to be both everything and the opposite of everything. He was supposed to be a key central midfielder either deeper in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 or even higher up the pitch. However in every position Pogba has mixed some very good performances with some less sparkling games. Albeit in a Manchester United team, Mourinho's second season aside, that has never been competitive at the top of the Premier League table.
Mourinho and PogbaGetty Images
The question: What role does Paul Pogba play?
If you put everything else about Paul Pogba to one side there is still one great misunderstanding about Pogba and that is, at the age of 27, where he does he play best on the pitch? What is the role of Paul Pogba?
So far in his career his positional flexibility has become a paradoxical limit for Pogba. Every manager who has had Pogba in his squad, with the exception of perhaps one, has never really focused him on one particular position. This has been particularly notable in Manchester thanks to the constant revolving door in the manager's office. It feels as if Pogba has become the prototype of the good eclectic midfielder, able to everything but without excelling at anything.
The neighbour and the uncomfortable comparison: Kevin De Bruyne
Contrastingly you can look at the limiting of Pogba next to the growth of another, specifically his counterpart in the blue half of Manchester, Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian is not necessarily technically or physically superior to Pogba but he is the interpreter of Pep Guardiola's tactical plan. That philosophy gives De Bruyne a definitive, specialised role. Without him Pep's City does not run as smoothly. Without Pogba, United are where they were before his arrival, looking for a place in the Champions League.
Paul Pogba e Kevin De BruyneGetty Images
The basic misunderstanding: Specialisation
It has to be considered that Pogba has yet to reach full football maturity with a true sense of being. He needs a technician who understands him, someone who can ask him to finally specialise in something. Someone who can give Pogba a football 'doctorate', because up until this point he has been limited into doing a bit of this and a bit of that.
An excellent example of this came in winning the most important trophy of his career, the World Cup. Initially Pogba had a smaller role, deferring to allow N'Golo Kante dictate the tempo for the team from midfield. However after some early struggles for the team Didier Deschamps gave Pogba the keys to the car and he played the role effectively and diligently, giving France the balance they so desperately needed on their way to their second world title.
Paul Pogba of France dabs as he celebrates with the trophy after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, 2018 in Moscow, RussiaGetty Images
Midfield interior: The best Pogba in Conte/Allegri's Juventus
Yet even in that role there was still nothing extraordinarily exceptional. Effective, efficient, careful. Not extraordinary. To return to a Pogba of pure excellence it is necessary to go back to his most "immature" age, in the 3-5-2 of Antonio Conte.
Juventus' Paul Pogba celebrates after scoring.Reuters
Juventus remains the club where he played the best football of his career although as he progressed from Conte to Allegri some of his current chameleon cavalry began, an infinite journey of adaptations to the needs of the collective, carrying out the needs of the coaches rather than satisfying the individual.
The tactical adaptations to continuous different roles and requests and appear to have robbed Pogba of the explosiveness that got him away from his man, that intelligence that allowed him to read play better than most and that incredible shot, for when he was in a tight situation. These are all skills he still possesses, it's that wide range of abilities that has made him able to perform so many different roles but he can no longer bring them all together, in a specialised role.
With the suspension of the season and nearly 100 days since his last appearance the relationship between Pogba and United seems instead to become a story that was always destined to end badly. His flexibility and inability to take a mediocre group to the top table appears to be the spark that lit the fuse. Huge expectations have transformed into disillusionment, the underlying misunderstanding never resolved. The declarations of his agent - and some avoidable actions from Pogba himself - did the rest.
His will be one of the names that will inflame the summer transfer market, not least thanks to the will of Mino Raiola, who has done nothing to hide his intentions. His messaging has already begun, both against Solskjaer and some of the former players who have criticised Pogba.
However there are more problems for Pogba. He is still in a very expensive contract with United, who in turn still value him extremely highly. Plus there's that ankle, which is now being operated on but of which the consequences are still unknown. To the European market it appears as Pogba will be sensationally expensive and still with an unclear role.
It would take a manager willing to go beyond the player's flexibility and above all else risk building a midfield that depends on Pogba's function in a certain position, not a midfield where Pogba has to do everything. That is the task that would have to be put to Maurizio Sarri and Zinedine Zidane, two very different managers yet the two most likely men to have Pogba in their squad next season. Who knows what Raiola will advise, who knows what Pogba will decide and above all who knows what the future of the most mysterious of contemporary football's talents will be.