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Over the past few weeks we've been unable to escape opinions on Paul Pogba. With increasing regularity, the most expensive footballer of all-time has been criticised to the point where his current manager has had to publicly defend his performances.
As a regular watcher of Juventus, this writer has — while gleefully watching the Bianconeri manage just fine without the Frenchman this season — been intrigued by the debate surrounding the Manchester United midfielder and took in his last few outings to see how he fared.
Pogba seemed particularly keen to impress the Old Trafford crowd as Thursday night’s Europa League clash with FC Rostov got underway, but there was little doubt that his contribution was mixed.
A couple of the cross-field Steven Gerrard-esque ‘Hollywood' balls that he loves were right on target, and those passes won loud applause from those in attendance, but a free-kick that appeared to be well within his range, as well as his first long-range shot, both ended up in the stands.
With the last kick of the first half he finally hit the target, a powerful effort bringing a good save from Russian goalkeeper Nikita Medvedev, but a minute after the break Pogba’s evening came to an abrupt halt. He pulled up after bursting into a sprint, sitting on the turf looking worried before being led straight down the tunnel and replaced by Marouane Fellaini.
He is now expected to miss around three weeks of action with a hamstring injury, with Mourinho blaming the hectic schedule faced by his team this season. Just 24 hours earlier, the United boss appeared to insist that the criticism of Pogba was a product of jealousy.
“It is not Paul’s fault that he gets 10 times the money some players did in the past.
Spell on sidelines for Pogba will emphasise to those slating him what we'll be missing when he's not there.Will become better in his absence
— Wayne Barton (@WayneSBarton) March 16, 2017
“It is not his fault that some pundits are in real trouble with their lives and need every coin to survive, while Paul is a multimillionaire,” the Coach said.
“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.”
While the player’s wages have rarely been mentioned during analysis of his impact (or lack thereof) this season, his transfer fee is undoubtedly a major factor. After all, we’re talking about the most expensive player in the history of the game, a 23-year-old (at the time) bought for €105 million (£89.3 million) by the same club he walked away from for almost free back in 2012.
In that intervening period he became a much more well-rounded player, Antonio Conte and Max Allegri instilling the tactical awareness needed to survive in Serie A. Pogba thrived under both men, but, while he returned to Manchester much more highly regarded than he was when he left — the transfer backed by a global marketing campaign from his boot sponsor and even his own emoji — he was far from a complete player.
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A plethora of retired players (waves at Steve Nicol) have scoffed at that suggestion, insisting that a fee of that magnitude should automatically mean the player is able to win matches single-handed and that they are already the finished article. However, as anyone who watched Denílson at Real Betis could attest, breaking the world transfer record doesn’t necessarily mean you have signed an all-time great.
But back to Pogba. Having watched him at close quarters for the last four years, the view that he’s underperforming is, frankly, completely misguided. He leads United in terms of both chances created and completed passes, while his tally of goals and assists is very much in line with his contribution over the past few seasons.
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 22, 2017
In fact, he is pretty much recording career highs in every offensive category despite playing in a team that is not as cohesive as the Juventus sides he was formerly part of. Not only has his passing taking a huge leap to almost double the previous number of attempts per game, but his accuracy (currently 85.2%) is the best he has ever managed.
Much more involved in the build up play now he is not alongside Andrea Pirlo or Claudio Marchisio, he is still getting forward to create more scoring opportunities than he ever has in the past. Yes he has ten assists fewer than last term, but he is laying on more chances. Is it really his fault if, Zlatan Ibrahimović aside, his new team-mates have largely failed to convert them?
Adjusting To New Role
Pogba has done all of that while learning to play in a new system, in a formation he has barely been deployed in before. No longer on the left of a midfield three, he has certainly done better in a two-man unit for Mourinho than he did when his two previous bosses tried to move him elsewhere.
In an attempt to rest Pirlo, Conte often used Pogba in the central role of his 3-5-2 formation only to see his immaturity and desire to beat his marker see him lose the ball cheaply. Conversely, with the Bianconeri looking blunt last term, Allegri tested Pogba in a more advanced role only to discover he lacked the ability to make quick decisions between the lines.
Both experiments were shelved quickly, leaving many to see Pogba as a player who needed to be used in a specific way to draw out his best performances. There is certainly something to be said for that level of comfort, while the fact he is still so young must also be taken into account.
Zinedine Zidane only joined Juventus from Bordeaux as a 24-year-old, an Intertoto Cup the only trophy he had won at that point of his career. Pogba – who also looked exhausted through February and March last term before finishing the campaign in superb form – has already claimed four Serie A titles, two Italian Cups and one League Cup victory.
He has also played in the final of both the Champions League and the European Championships despite being nowhere near the finished article yet. Yes, he has much to learn and can do far better than his recent performances have suggested, but the constant criticism misses the ultimate point about the player he can become.
Ignore the haircuts, the constant self-promotion and the price tag, Paul Pogba is just getting started.