Are we expecting too much from Paul Pogba? Do we have to accept that he is just a talented footballer, but not as special or as important as we believed he would be.
When Paul Pogba returned back to Man United it appeared as though they had added a player who would be key to their resurgence after a few difficult years post-Ferguson. This was a player bought for a record £89m, a player regarded as one of the best talents in world football. This was seen as major acquisition from United, a show of intent and an important piece to Jose Mourinho’s new era at the club. As we come to the end of Pogba and Mourinho’s second season there appears to be significantly more issues and concerns than progression and positivity involving their record signing and experienced manager.
Paul Pogba is fascinating to me. He intrigues me more than any other player. At times he shows some really quality and brilliance and yet at other times I can’t see it, can’t see what the hype is about. He perhaps splits opinion like perhaps no other player. Some regard him as an extremely gifted footballer who has the skills, passing ability and creativity which makes him one of the world’s best player. Others regard him as a showboater, FIFA player who seems more concerned with tricks and flicks and his social media profile and image than performing on the pitch. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere inbetween, which doesn’t bode so well for Pogba.
The new form of millennial
I have to say that Pogba is perhaps the metaphor of the new age millennials in football. He’s now living in the social media millennial culture; obsessed particularly with instagram and Twitter, where the youth of today live their lives through social media on a daily basis. Pogba has embraced this culture and thrived from it. His marketing ability has been comparable to when Beckham’s brand started to exploit the late 90’s market. Pogba has become the face of his generation. The poster boy of the new generation of football.
And yet, one can argue that this has done him a dis-service. Both to his reputation and his game. His reputation has suffered because this is an easy stick to bash him with when he underperforms; he cares more about his off field world than the world on the pitch. That he plays to build highlight reels rather than plays to win games and succeed as a great footballer. At times this is a fair reflection on Pogba. It’s appears to be about about hairstyles, emoji’s and adverts, rather than his performances. At least those top marketable names across sports performed superbly in their respective sports (Messi, Ronaldo, LeBron, Curry, Beckham etc) . Put bluntly, Pogba isn’t backing up the hype. And so we must consider his ‘game’ and ascertain why Pogba isn’t living up to the price tag, the reputation and the expectation.
A false dawn
This season looked to be something of a breakout for Pogba, those early games in the season saw him influencing games with his dynamism, skill and vision, as well as scoring goals and playing with the level of dominance. This the Pogba people expected. United were soaring and seemingly set on making a strong run at the title. And then Pogba got a hamstring injury, putting him on the sidelines for 6 weeks and stalling United’s season. Their explosive start spluttered somewhat in his absence, allowing City to steal a march on the top spot.
Pogba was accused of not looking after himself effectively enough to prevent the injury, citing concerning there of issues between player and coach/staff. Since his return we have seen suspensions affect his attendance in key games (an impressive performance vs Arsenal over-shadowed by a red card taking him out of the big City game which United ultimately lost). That derby game and loss effectively handed City the title and since then the gap increased. A season which promised so much initially has dwindled and become a frustrating period for the club, manager and players. Pogba encapsulates the issues.
United’s cohesion issues
While City have gone from strength to strength, have excelled and improved, United have not been able to recover since that injury to Pogba. They have looked disjointed, frustrated and with the exit to Sevilla this week in the Champions League, appearing to be in some sort of mini-crisis. The three wins prior to the Sevilla game pointed to a resurgence for United, solidifying their position in 2nd and making things look reasonably steady. The Palace game however pointed to the problems, with a first half performance which was extremely concerning. A late comeback showed fighting spirit, but there was an issue of Mourinho struggling to bring out the best in this group of players; both tactically and individually. Pogba particularly was struggling.
The loss to Spurs highlighted the issues with Pogba and his role in the team. United were ripped open time and time again, with Pogba seemingly not doing his job for the team. And in the two legs against Sevilla there pointed to deeper problems; notably the lack of cohesion with the team, the defensive/negative mentality employed by the team/coach and the issue with Pogba, their record signing. Pogba wasn’t selected for the 1st leg – he did come on after an injury to Herrera. And in the 2nd leg he was sub again, when he did come on United went from 0-0 to 2-0 down. The signs did not look good.
What type of midfielder is he?
When you spend £89m on a player you are effectively making a statement of intent. There have been defenders of Pogba and the deal saying that the cost was relative and that it shouldn’t reflect on the player and club in terms of the pressure and expectations. Huh? You spend that level of money, on a player regarded as one of the world’s best players, and you damn right expect him to deliver! And the truth is he just hasn’t delivered to the level expected of him.
Since arriving at United Pogba has been overall ok, yet his return in respects to goals and assists since arriving back is 11 goals scored and 15 assists. It’s not exactly numbers which make you sit up and think “Wow!”. And that’s the problem. Yes there’s been a Europa League success and League Cup win, yet has Pogba really performed to the level people expected? No!
There’s been excuses for him. “Playing deeper isn’t his position”, “he can’t play in a two man midfield”, “he needs to play higher”, “needs to play on the left of midfield like at Juve” etc etc. On paper Pogba has the technical ability to play different roles effectively but does he have the mentality and willingness to play these roles? That’s the big question. And he appears to be showing us that he doesn’t have the mindset and desire to be what Mourinho wants and expects him to be.
And thats the issue. Are people are expecting him to be someone he isn’t? Everyone has been guilty of comparing him to players that have graced the Premier League and sought to compare Pogba to them. For instance; Yaya Toure; a physically imposing, dynamic and athletic player with African heritage. With skill, an ability to drive forward, creative with his passing and an ability to shoot from distance. A player who took the Premier League by storm, dominated it for several years and was a key reason for City winning two league titles. Less was expected of Yaya when he arrived in England than of Pogba, but it doesn’t seem as though Pogba has the drive and determination to dominate games like Yaya did.
The same of Gerrard. A similar type of midfielder to Toure; attacking minded, dynamic, all-action, a game changer who drove at players, created and scored goals. The Roy of the Rovers type player, “the key man”, the guy who stood up and took on the responsibility to drive his team to success. Does Pogba do any of this? I think that’s what people thought he would do, what he would bring to Man Utd. It seemed that his was more like what he did at Juve. Yet have we seen anything like this since his retuned to Old Trafford?
What about Patrick Vieria? Again, a similar type player in appearance and athleticism to Pogba, key midfield players for the French national team, a good comparison to Pogba? Well, no. Because while Vieira dominated the midfield, was combative, aggressive and extremely dominant in his play, both with and without the ball, Pogba doesn’t impose himself on games defensively hardly at all. He doesn’t use his size, strength and athleticism effectively, and when he does it is sporadic. He simply doesn’t dominate the midfield like the best of the past. He actually shows a fear when he defends.
Two instances this season standout. The first was the goal Newcastle scored at St James’ Park when Pogba just let his man run off him and passed on responsibility to deal with the free kick. The free header led to the Matt Ritchie goal. And I watched that and thought, he is a liability, he doesn’t want to do the things needed for a successful side to win. That is to step up in these situations and be a commanding force, a leader. Instead he makes the choice not to compete. In the game versus Chelsea at Old Trafford in February Willian’s goal comes from a poorly contested 50/50 on the edge of Chelsea’s box with Pogba, who is easily beaten for the header, in a way that looks incredibly weak. It’s as though he either doesn’t want to be doing these things, or is scared of challenging and competing. For all his size he doesn’t impose himself in these situations. It’s a major indictment for a player of his statue and position.
Embracing the controller role
It seems that Pogba wants to play the easy role, get on the ball with time and space, take some nice touches, spray passes over the pitch. Yet he’s not influencing games like he should. Paul Scholes was a very effective goal scorer in his 20’s, moving into a more controlling midfielder role as he got older. Along with Carrick they controlled games deeper in midfield, with excellent possession and passing. Pogba is playing something more akin to the Scholes/Carrick role now, but Paul Pogba is 25 years old, he’s not young – so excuses of experience/age can’t be used- and he’s certainly not old either, therefore he should be offering far more than what he is doing now.
The issue that he is seeking to play a controller/continuity role, in a team which is desperate for a Gerrard/Yaya player. United need more of a Gerrard than a Scholes, and should not be relying on Lingard for that type of production. After all, if we are talking about any type of role for Pogba, surely a goalscoring playmaker is what he is best suited for? A Lampard type role perhaps, technically a No.10 who participates in the build up but who’s main role is goalscoring and contributing in the attacking positions in the area. Like what Alli does for Spurs.
If we’re talking about excellent United midfielders, one of the best midfielders the Premier League has seen is Roy Keane. He was the epitome of what made United’s midfield so effective and what made the club so successful. He was relentless, an animal, dominant, aggressive, imposing, a leader. And a very good footballer. He could pass excellently and could get forward to score important goals. He was much better a footballer than people give credit for. But it was his influence which was key for him as a player. He set the standards for the team and the club, there was a level and he didn’t allow players to drop off. That set the tone for United’s success. Where is that player now in this United side? Is that who Pogba needs to be?
A time to be a leader
And you see therein lies the problem, all these questions about who Pogba is like, who he should be, how he should act, lots of questions and then the inevitable frustration when he doesn’t step up to these expectations. Well, perhaps we need to accept that he just isn’t this type of player. Perhaps Pogba isn’t the player who will drive United to success, who will set the standards, be the game changer. Perhaps we are seeing the truth about who and what Pogba is. And that doesn’t bode well for United.
You see, of all the top quality midfielders United have had, perhaps Pogba resembles Juan Sebastian Veron the most; a fantastic player, capable of controlling games, playing a deep playmaker role, creative with his passing and skill. Not appreciated fully in England for what he brought, or another people expected ‘different’ things from, yet certainly a player who people expected more from.
To be honest, for the money spent (and yes it is important – because it’s a statement of intent, and a reflection also of how important this player is for your team) Pogba needs to be the key figure in the side – like key players such as Messi, Ronaldo and how we’ve seen Gerrard, Yaya and Lampard. Truth is, Pogba should be providing so much more.
Going back to the argument about his role, especially as a leader of the team, the truth may well be that Pogba is very good in a very good side, where he isn’t expected to be the leader. At Juve, where he did do well and was a key part of the team – in his specific role – he was surrounded by leaders, by high standards, by big characters and personalities. There was experience across the squad. Pogba therefore was given more freedom to express, create and be an attacker, yet also and this is the important thing, not expected to drive and lead the team.
People expected Pogba to come to United as a 24 year old, ready to step up and lead the team. His experience at Juve, maturing him, developing him, seeing what a great side and leaders did, was hoped he would bring all this to United. But that just doesn’t seem in his character. It seems he is burdened by the responsibility to be a leader of the team and to lead by example.
Look at the poorness of his defensive duties which his coach and his team require from him. While his passing and assists numbers are decent, it is his defending where he’s not delivering, and United are suffering because of it. He is not in the right positions to defend, to cover passing lanes or support his fellow midfielders. He neglects his responsibilities and exposes his midfield too often. He doesn’t have Vidal or Marchisio next to him now, or Pirlo dictating the game behind him. He is required to be a key part of this team, not the luxury player who necessarily has freedom to roam and express.
The frustrating element is that he is in a sort of limbo, pulled between a role expected of him and a role he wants to play. Resulting in under-performance and frustration from player, coach and fans. Perhaps United and their coach need to understand Pogba for who he is and what he offers, more than expecting what they want from him.
Everyone hates Mourinho, and Mourinho hates everyone
There could be a whole article about Mourinho (and after editing this this section is rather long); his tactics, the culture he is creating, his decision making, his own personal battle with Guardiola. In fairness in my time writing this blog I think I’ve touched on Mourinho more than anyone else and these issues have come up before. The aspects touched on above all tie together to lead us to where we are with Pogba.
This season was supposed to be the season where it clicked for United. Where Mourinho’s team was going to come together and march to the title. Mourinho felt it, as you could see with his image, style and demeanour in the early weeks of the season. Jose’s confidence was back. His team were winning games scoring four goals – defensive football? Yeah right! He believed in his team, believed he was winning another title. And then the wheels fell off and so did Mourinho’s belief and composure (and we saw defensive football return).
His frustrations at being so far behind City, of being compared and contrasted to Guardiola’s style took it’s toll on the United manager. Over the course of the season we have seen a gradual decline of his persona, increased excuses and frustrations, which were highlighted this past week versus Sevilla, where the fans turned on the negative, defensive football and Mourinho came out defending his record, while effectively degrading United’s status as a big club. It was the typical Mourinho meltdown we have seen before, when the failure to be No.1 knocks him and he comes out defensively fighting (for himself), and a regular occurrence of throwing his team under the bus ensues.
He wasn’t always like this, he used to take all the criticism on himself, but it seems since Real Madrid, since he battled Guardiola and fought for controlling power at the club, he has lost the ‘whole club’ siege mentality approach, and become more protectionist of himself and his small management team (the fact he no longer has an ex-player in his management team now speaks volumes). This has led to more problems than positives. Understandably so.
Effectively when things go badly Mourinho goes into his own personal bunker, and while it used to be ‘us (the club) vs them’, it is now ‘me vs everyone’. A very dangerous position to take. Which certainly doesn’t help to build belief, cohesion and trust in his players. This is the new Mourinho. And it’s not an upgrade. It’s a serious problem. It appears that he now feels that he shouldn’t or cant ‘t questioned or criticised, that his record as a manager allows him to be untouchable. Humility has never been part of Mourinho’s personality but there was a sense that he was very good with his players, an open and warm person. I worry that this has started to go. That he is now fighting more with his players than working with them. And this brings along the tactical elements and player performance problems.
The anti-thesis of Guardiola has its consequences
Mourinho’s issues with Guardiola coincide with the style of football and the criticism of his style. This philosophical battle with Guardiola is killing Mourinho. Firstly Guardiola is winning in terms of trophies and is also playing great football and showing tactical progression and ingenuity. He is winning the trophies and style war. Everyone loves City’s style and hates United’s. Which means everyone loves Guardiola, and hates Mourinho.
Mourinho is the anti-thesis of Guardiola. And he is pushing this divide more and more. It’s as though he can’t be seen to be seeking to play like City because that would be an admission of defeat against his ‘nemesis’. So United play ‘differently’, which means they are a defensive side who don’t obsess about ideas of “positional play”, and the need for possession etc. Only problem is, this is making United so tragically bad. They look dis-jointed, tactically poor when in possession, lacking ideas, creativity and cohesion. Effectively the opposite of City who look as though they know what they are doing, and within this framework are excelling, thriving and being creative.
Jose has achieved the opposite, but to near detrimental effects. Whereas Guardiola embraces the concept of ‘team’, Mourinho seems to be in the mindset of ‘individuals’. The idea that ‘If we add ‘quality’ players to the team we will improve.’ That the individuals will win us games. Yet this hasn’t happened. Alexis has been shocking, lacking in his positioning, decision making and influence. He looks and plays without structure, it looks random. His addition has actually negatively affected the balance of the team which did appear to be getting settled in the 4-2-3-1 which Mourinho most often builds from. Alexis has taken up other players roles, positions and has offered very little with this. Martial has suffered. And Pogba too.
Maximise strengths and flourish. Limit a player and you’ll limit your team.
The issue with Pogba and Mourinho has been touched on before. Positionally and in terms of his role there is an argument that Pogba is being asked to do a role which isn’t in his psyche. He is not a dominant central midfielder but a creative attacking midfielder. His body type is not a true reflection on what he is as a footballer. But Mourinho seems obsessed with Pogba adapting his style to suit the team and his tactics. Which may be fair enough if you see this player being your key dominant midfielder, but the problem is Pogba is not doing very well in the role asked of him and is killing the team and player. Instead of embracing Pogba for his strengths, he is being punished for not playing to what Mourinho wants.
In respects to the comparison of Guardiola, a coach who also punishes players for not ‘buying in’ to what he asks of them, the argument to this is that Guardiola seeks to bring out the best in his players and maximise their strengths. I’m not sure he would like Pogba in his team, lacking perhaps the dynamism and mentality to press with speed, yet I would believe that Guardiola would be bringing more out of the Frenchman.
Pogba is an attacking midfielder, who seeks to create and score goals. Mourinho is limiting his key influence and replacing it with a player who is frustrated and playing through the motions rather than pushing to do more. It may be that Pogba has to share the blame for his performances, that his own petulance or neglect of his responsibilities deserve the treatment he is getting. But it seems as though Mourinho is punishing his ‘star’ player, affecting his team’s success and progression and forcing a key player out of the club. All of which looks damaging to the manager, player and the club.
If we accept that Pogba’s best role is a roaming 10, who drifts to the left, then you can build around him in the same way Mourinho built his sides around Deco, Lampard, Sneijder and Ozil. Mourinho has a blueprint for bringing out the best in his attacking midfielders, of embracing the No.10 and creating the bond between them and the No.9. Lukaku has improved across the season, so a combination of Pogba and Lukaku would be a potent force surely? Especially as both are good friends and Pogba was a big part of getting the Belgian to join United. So why not increase that bond, instead of causing more problems? I see it like Alli and Kane at Spurs, a forward/midfielder bond, the 9 and 10 relationship. Pochettino rarely changes this partnership. He has built this Spurs around it.
Look at what Klopp is doing with Salah and ‘his’ signings – bringing out the best in them. Helping them, maximising their influence and role, tactically building the team and style to enhance the attacking players he has. You can’t make out that Klopp is not bringing out the best in his attacking players.
A battle to be the King
Is it a lesson to Pogba? A battle of egos to prove that Mourinho is the man in charge and Pogba does what he says? The problem is, these new age millennials react differently to authority, they rebel if they don’t feel they have ownership, if they aren’t valued or appreciated. Mourinho perhaps is showing his age and inability to bend to this new breed of players. Pogba is an A type personality who wants to be ‘the man’, yet his coach is chastising and seemingly castrating his star player, because he wants to make sure that he, Jose Mourinho, is the king of this club. It’s a battle which Mourinho may win, but which may cost him success at the club and which will cost United a key player for now and the future.
Mourinho is playing a dangerous game of dominance and control, which he has played at Madrid and Chelsea in recent years, and lost. Perhaps he feels this club will be different, that people like Ed Woodward can be controlled, but if he seeks to treat his players in this way he will not achieve what he wants because he seeks to rule with fear and control, not realising that the modern player is different. Alex Ferguson knew how to adapt and evolve to suit the needs of each generation, his tactics and man-management changed to stay relevant and successful.
There is a fear with Mourinho that he isn’t evolving or adapting, but becoming less adaptable and more negative and controlling. He is limiting his best players, stifling his team’s style and causing conflict between himself and the players and fans. It is a situation we’ve seen before and which ends with Mourinho leaving under a dark cloud of negativity and blame.
Pogba appears to be taking the brunt of Mourinho’s anger and frustration. A shame really, because Pogba is a very talented footballer, yet one who needs to be loved, valued and appreciated (in terms of his talents) to shine. Juve brought out the best in him because they understood him and had players around him who could help him. United are lacking leadership and characters, is that Mourinho’s fault? Or the failure of a failed strategy from Woodward these past several years?
Other players have suffered under Mourinho also; notably De Bruyne and Salah, who we now see as the Premier League’s best players. Perhaps there is a major problem with Mourinho’s ability to appreciate and bring out the best in his young and talented players. He embraces a defensive first, negative approach, thus limiting his talented players, affecting results and leading to negativity and criticism about style and performances. A cycle which sees Mourinho fall apart, blame everyone and then depart.
Mourinho is not the manager he was, no longer the perceived best in the world. He knows this. Guardiola is the one now. And I can’t help but see a man who cannot accept or deal with this reality. His players are suffering from their manager’s own psychological issues. And that is a shame. Paul Pogba is a talented player who is drowning from his manager’s insecurities and negativity. It seems hard to see Pogba justify his record breaking fee under this manager. One looks set to leave, and most likely that looks to be the Frenchman. Is that good for United’s future? Time will tell.
By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)