While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo continue to be the world’s two most talented players, Paul Pogba is quickly overtaking them as the game’s most-discussed star. The French midfielder is now a part of our daily news cycle; a change to his hair, another celebratory Dab, talk of going back to Manchester United, or Real Madrid or Barcelona…the list goes on and on and on.
Simply put, the 23 year old is a box office hit. People care because he is now arguably football’s most marketable star, a young, promising talent who is finally beginning to realise the vast potential with which he is so clearly blessed. Fans of clubs across Europe dream of seeing him added to their squad this summer, while Juventus supporters cross their fingers and pray that he opts to remain with the Old Lady a little while longer.
It shows that he has come a long way from the prodigious teenager Sir Alex Ferguson refused to believe in, the great manager appearing to have made a rare mistake in overlooking Pogba during his formative years at Old Trafford. But perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps being left in the reserves to watch Paul Scholes come out of retirement when United needed cover in midfield is what now drives him to achieve all he can? Perhaps being rejected by a legend was the first step to becoming one himself?
There is little doubt about what came next however, with the Bianconeri proving to be the perfect place for Pogba to hone his abilities. Playing alongside Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio taught the young apprentice many aspects of the game, while giving him the opportunity to line up alongside his idol.
“I am lucky that I get to play with my hero Andrea Pirlo,” Pogba told the Daily Mail back in 2014. “I make no secret I want to be like him. He has won everything and he has won it playing such an important role.” For a time, Juve boss Antonio Conte deployed the Paris native as a deputy for the bearded Italian genius, letting the team play through him and giving him valuable experience of dictating the pace of a match.
“Conte has done nothing but push me. It is easy to end up nowhere, so I have to keep working hard,” Pogba said in an interview with the FIFA website after his debut campaign in Turin. “It is my first year, but the Coach has shown he is not afraid to give me a chance, and that age does not mean a thing.”
The new Chelsea boss has a well-earned reputation as a meticulous drill sergeant, running his players through movements repetitively until they become deeply engrained, instilling a tactical discipline that was very evident in his Italy side at Euro 2016. They were lessons Pogba learned well, adding a new dimension to his game before Conte moved on in the summer of 2014, replaced by Max Allegri.
Having been sacked by AC Milan just a few months earlier, the Tuscan Coach arrived at Juventus amid huge scepticism, but one of his first moves was to hand Pogba a freedom that he had not previously been allowed. No longer deputising for Pirlo, he played alongside him, shielding the World Cup winner when the Bianconeri lost the ball but able to press forward and join the attack at every opportunity.
With the leash loosened, Pogba flourished, playing a key role as the team won the league and cup double for the first time in two decades while also reaching the Champions League Final. A year later, Vidal, Pirlo and Carlos Tevez would follow Conte through the exit, their departures heaping real pressure on their former team-mate.
Losing the first two of that trio meant that Pogba was now the key midfielder for Juve, expected to carry a much heavier workload that in his first three seasons. At the start of 2015/16, that proved to be too much for him to handle and, for the first time in his career, he wilted. The Bianconeri endured their worst start to a domestic campaign in modern history and the possibility of a fifth-consecutive Scudetto looked lost.
Furthermore, Tevez’s return to Boca Juniors allowed Pogba to wear the club’s coveted no.10 shirt –previously the property of Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero – which only served to intensify the scrutiny. However, as the season progressed, he rose to the challenge, turning in a string of impressive displays as the league title and Coppa Italia were both retained, something no Italian side had ever achieved before.
Great teams are often compared to an orchestra, perfect timing and harmony essential to victory. With their defence moving in unison and others shuttling around to be in the right place at all times, few sides are as in tune as Allegri’s Bianconeri. Yet the volume at Juventus Stadium always increases whenever Pogba gets the ball, like a freelancing jazz soloist he goes wherever he chooses, the crowd visibly and audibly enjoying his random acts of improvisation.
Arguably the most powerful athlete in the sport, he can brush off opponents or skip by them gracefully, blessed a first touch that can make grown men blush and children gasp. Sure, he can be wasteful in possession at times but he is still just 23 and is constantly improving, recording career highs in both goals and assists last term.
Perhaps his greatest trait is the sheer enjoyment he takes from football, celebrating wins by dancing with Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and even Patrice Evra, who he affectionately calls “Uncle Pat.” Pogba’s relationship with Allegri has brought the best from him, the Coach regularly taking him on at games in practice but unafraid to lambast his young protégé whenever he overindulges on the field.
Whether he remains in Turin or moves on this summer or in the future, there is little doubt that Pogba will reach the very pinnacle of the game he so clearly loves. He may not yet at the level of Ronaldo or Messi, but he so clearly has time on his side.
Time to realise his dream of winning the Ballon d’Or, time to become a truly great player and time for Paul Pogba to win everything there is to win.