Paul Pogba is a highly polarising figure in world football. The Frenchman's brand of football, demeanour and eccentric haircuts make him an oddity. While it was once widely agreed that his achievements by the age of 23 had made him a force to be reckoned with, his world record £89 million transfer to Manchester United exponentially increased the scrutiny he came under, making him the centre of people's attention/ridicule.
At Juventus, Pogba plied his trade with relative ease – roaming freely all over the pitch, terrorising defenders, and taking shots from absurd distances. However, at Manchester United, the story has been different for the French international. Based on evidence from the season so far, one cannot say his personal style of play has been drastically different, or inferior in any way. The disparity is more down to the way he has been deployed, and the way his performances are perceived.
Juventus primarily employed a 3-5-2 formation, opting to have an extra man in midfield to provide solidity in the middle of the park. Pogba and Arturo Vidal/Sami Khedira were deployed just ahead of Andrea Pirlo/Claudio Marchisio, who served as deep-lying playmakers. Pogba's incredible midfield and defensive support system at Juventus permitted him to play his inherently uninhibited style of football. Juventus had a stable spine, consisting of players like Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Pirlo, Vidal and Marchisio, which would hardly be tampered with during the reign of both Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri. This stability in the team undoubtedly translated to an increased sense of awareness and chemistry among the players of la Vecchia Segnora, who repeatedly churned out solid, title winning performances. Therefore the No 6, with his natural flair, spontaneity and athleticism, stood out in a team which valued rigidity and stability above all. His eight goals and 12 assists in the Serie A for Juventus last season were impressive considering he is not a "natural goalscorer" who is always deployed in attacking positions. One aspect in which he was found lacking was his movement off the ball, but it was often overlooked owing to his teammates' efficiency at plugging gaps and moving the ball, or because he would bring the ball into the attacking third himself.
At Juventus, Pogba was a cog that fit the system perfectly. However, at Manchester United, there seems to be an effort to design the system around him, often to the detriment of both the Frenchman and the team. This is an erroneous approach, because it sacrifices the balance of the team in favour of making an individual comfortable.
Jose Mourinho has experimented with Paul Pogba's starting position. The seasoned manager has played the young star both as a defensive and an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, and as a standard box-to-box central midfielder in a 4-3-3. These experiments helped us witness Pogba's brilliance, as was evident in his imperious displays against Leicester, Fenerbahce (at home) and Swansea where he was calm in position, regularly creating and executing goal-scoring chances. However, these experiments also made his shortcomings rather evident.
Pogba's errant positioning off the ball was punished by Watford and Chelsea, who found it easy to score on the counter against the Red Devils due to Pogba being unable to make smart interceptions or track back quick enough to avoid a dangerous counter-attack. Jose Mourinho seemingly remedied this situation by playing Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick alongside Pogba, and the former's ability to win second balls and make interceptions greatly aided the Frenchman during his stronger performances at Manchester United. However, when both Herrera and Carrick are not accompanying Pogba, he faces the risk of being stifled and ineffective if his midfield partner were to have an off day.
Thus, in order to get the best out of the young star, one can argue that the presence of an intelligent playmaker like Carrick/Pirlo and an energetic defensive mid like Herrera/Vidal is essential. It maintains the balance in midfield while simultaneously giving Pogba the freedom to play his natural game. An absence of similar figures made Pogba cut a lonely figure in the French national team during their Euro 2016 run as well. This is not to say that these players work as Pogba's "crutch"; it merely signifies that the Pogba we know shines through in the presence of such supporting figures.
The observer's perception plays a much larger role in Paul Pogba's apparent downfall than one would think. As a part of a multi-title winning team that reached a Champions League final, Pogba was obviously highly regarded, but when thrust into a struggling Manchester United squad, still in transition after yet again changing managers, the criticisms levied against him continue rising.
The world record transfer fee has added another layer of expectation and pressure onto the still blossoming youngster, who is now expected to single-handedly carry his team the way other mega money signings like Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo would. However, one fails to recognise that Pogba has never been an outright goalscorer capable of turning a match on its head like Lionel Messi, Neymar or Luis Suarez. Pogba's strength has always been his athleticism and flair, which often give rise to interesting opportunities for his team.
Pogba's inability to be the 'star attraction' in the team was also highlighted during the 2016 European Championship. As an entire nation pinned their hopes on Pogba and Antoine Griezmann primarily, it was the latter who thrived under the pressure, while Pogba was underwhelming by his standards. However, even an underwhelming tournament for Pogba is what one would consider a great one for a most other players, as he scored, had 1.7 key passes, 2 successful dribbles per game and a passing accuracy of over 88 percent over the course of the tournament.
Being under such scrutiny, and having to bear the weight of immense expectation has never been easy, and harsh words are always in store for a player like Pogba whose arrogance and antics are looked down upon by more "refined" enthusiasts of the game. He is prone to being singled out despite the collective failure of his team, as was evident during Manchester United's recent dry spell, and even after their capitulation against Chelsea. It even prompted Jose Mourinho to lash out at the media, saying “First of all, in some of your mouths, he goes from the worst player in the Premier League to a great player in 48 hours," after the French international's stunning strike won the game against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford.
Does this imply Pogba can afford to not do better? Absolutely not. While he should not be blamed for Juventus' valuation and Manchester United's impulsive spending, it is still his duty to perform to his best of his ability for the club that has placed their trust in him.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended for United's game against Arsenal, Manchester United's prodigal son will know there'll hardly be a better opportunity for him to silence his critics by stamping his authority onto a game. A solid performance could set an encouraging precedent for his time at Old Trafford. In the near future, if his positioning off the ball can be improved and moulded into what is apt for a box-to-box midfielder, his technique and inherent traits will easily propel him to the highest echelon in world football.
First Published On : Nov 8, 2016 12:24 IST