My piece on Paul Pogba criticism for the Boot Room
Paul Pogba isn’t worthy of being the football’s most expensive player.
At least that’s the claim coming from all corners, whether it be the media, former players or the multitude of fans on social media, fan blogs etc. The former Juventus man returned to Manchester United last summer amid much hoopla. Despite some down years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, this was a statement signing signifying the club could withstand lean times and still make a mark. It certainly wasn’t Pogba’s fault that Juventus negotiated shrewdly and United were willing to throw out money at someone they gifted away then realized they desperately needed.
Pogba’s time in Italy allowed him to evolve into the all-around talented midfielder he is today and the YouTube clips of long-range bombs, exquisite dribbling, and sublime passing have fans expecting all of that regularly. What those clips don’t reveal is the importance of Pogba’s teammates and the tactical setup that allowed those moments. The Frenchman just turned 24 and, like many in his generation despite their talents, still has some fine-tweaking to do with his game.
Any player with Pogba’s talents, especially with the weight of that transfer fee hanging over them, will try to please everyone. Pogba’s case is especially unique as he heads into the self-professed “best league in the world.” Even if that claim isn’t irrefutable, he has definitely made a big step up in competition.
While that transfer fee sticks in the minds of critics it may be hard to step back and recognize that, like other new signings, this is a player adjusting to life on the pitch at Manchester United and the Premier League. There’s also a new coach, new teammates and different style of play. Pogba will be used to dominating the Serie A with Juventus against weaker opponents with a winter break and without the any given Sunday feel of the Premier League.
Put simply, the criticism of Pogba is mainly down to his value, one he didn’t place on himself, without considering all other factors.
As seen on ESPNFC, a look back at the last few seasons shows that Pogba’s statistics this season aren’t far off his norm. At Juventus, he had nine goals and nine assists in 2013/14, nine goals and five assists in 2014/15 and nine goals and 15 assists in 2015/16. This season he has seven goals and five assists, with at least two months to play.
He’s shown flashes of his talent at times and, knowing the impact he can bring, he could be accused of trying too hard in bigger games. That hasn’t been helped by a manager who is known to prefer more pragmatism than creativity in his midfielders. Mesut Ozil may have been the exception to some extent where that is concerned.
Jose Mourinho has seemingly failed to realize the problems Didier Deschamps had at Euro 2016 or is unwilling to learn from the examples from his peers, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri. Pogba performs best in a three-man midfield with the freedom to use his range of talents. Whether it was a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2, Pogba had two partners. Someone like Andrea Pirlo or Claudio Marchisio helped control the midfield while the likes of Arturo Vidal or Sami Khedira were all-action types. If Pogba is partnered at the base of a 4-2-3-1 then he is better off with an enforcer.
Which is why Mourinho’s reported interest in Monaco star Tiemoue Bakayoko, according to ESPN, makes sense. It’s also why Michael Carrick should be offered a new contract. Bakayoko would fill the role of enforcer any formation Mourinho chooses, as noted here by the Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe, while Carrick could be used in other situations where more control is required. In either case, Ander Herrera fits the all-action role perfectly.
Detractors may say that a player who comes in for that amount of money should be able to fit in anywhere and with anyone. It’s quite the opposite. A player like that is bought for what they bring to the team, sometimes to the extent that the team is built around them. Manchester United bought Pogba not just for 2016/17 but for a decade or more of service. It won’t work if he is not put in the best position to succeed.
Another simple bit of reasoning in some corners is that a player transferred for that amount should be the best player in the world. That’s not the case with Pogba nor with the previous player to hold that honor, Gareth Bale. Indeed, Pogba’s fee should be accepted as a product of the finances in football today, however bad a taste such expenditure leaves.
If the likes of Bale, Kevin de Bruyne, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, James Rodriquez and, yes, even Cristiano Ronaldo, can cost more than Zinedine Zidane then why can’t Pogba? And for those who scoff at Ronaldo’s name on that list consider this.
Ronaldo joined Real Madrid at 23 having won titles along with previously being named the best player in the world. Pogba won almost as many titles with Juventus minus the Champions League. Pogba is also still coming of age in an era where two of the greatest ever to play the game, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, still dominate yet his talent suggest he is among those to be next in line. For further comparison, Ronaldo didn’t win anything at Madrid until his third season while Pogba has already helped his side to a trophy and could get at least one more in his debut season.
That’s why his injury is almost a good thing. Pogba will now have time to get some much-needed rest, analyze his season so far and prepare to make a big impact in the games to come. A Europa league title coupled with a top-four finish, though one or the other will do for a Champions League return, would make for a solid season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has led the way and will continue to do so but that’s what experience in four of the five major leagues gets you.
Pogba may not be the highlight-reel fans were expecting nor, in some people’s minds, worth the title of world’s most expensive player. A decent first season is still in hand and the likelihood is that, with the right team around him, next season will be even better.