FT English Premier League Preview: Can Pogba Help Lead Man United To The Title?
Surely this has to be the Frenchman’s season, or so we think. His heroic exploits in the World Cup where he helped the French national team claim football’s greatest prize, have not gone unnoticed. Paul Pogba’s time to shine is now. The Manchester United talisman has received his fair share of criticism both at the club and national level for all the wrong reasons. Some cite his failure to offer more defensive work in his game, some criticize him for trying to do too much (or little) with the ball, and lest we forget, he’s also received stick for his numerous hairstyles which have been said to somewhat contribute to his disappointing displays at times. Nonetheless, the real question to be addressed right now is can he replicate his France form to the Red Devils’ midfield, going into the new season? Let’s wait and see.
Paul Pogba’s time at Manchester United has been rather bittersweet. Carrying a record-breaking $90 million price tag on his shoulders, the stakes were bound to be high for the Frenchman and they surely have been. In his first season, Pogba had quite an average season by his standards, chipping in with 5 goals and 4 assists in the league. Fast forward to the 2017/18 season, the stats didn’t change much, though we did see some improvements. Pogba managed to score 6 goals and provided 6 assists in what was rather a mixed season for him as his problems and consistency with fully expressing himself on the field continued.
Pogba’s season was filled with loads of activity, good and interesting. For instance, his perceived “fallout” with Jose Mourinho in the middle of the season affected the player’s morale as criticism of his play flew in left, right and center. The bone of contention about Pogba’s play has been more about his failure to assist his teammates defensively, exposing the already suspect Man United defense with the inconsistent midfield cover. This was largely attributed to the way Mourinho was deploying the charismatic Frenchman, playing him in a two-man defensive midfield alongside Nemanja Matic. This made Pogba get caught out of possession countless times, something that infuriated Mourinho who is a master of keeping things tight with his teams. As Pogba”s struggles continued to haunt him, Mourinho set tongues wagging when he started benching the Frenchman in a couple of United’s games, opting for the young Scott Mctominay instead. Many assumed Mourinho was trying to teach Pogba “a lesson” for his disappointing and inconsistent displays, but the Portuguese coach was quick to squash those allegations, citing that Pogba had not been playing at the level he wanted him to play at.
Most Manchester United fans were hoping that Matic’s signing would “unlock” Paul Pogba’s offensive prowess and enable him to provide those key passes and open up defenses with his defense-splitting passes. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case. The glimpses of what he can do were existent nonetheless. A good example that comes to mind was during the Manchester derby where Pogba played a pivotal role in helping United overcome runaway title winners City in a 3-2 victory. In that game, Pogba looked like his former Juventus self, winning balls and initiating attacks for the Red Devils, doing pretty much what we expect of him in every game.
In the lead up to the World Cup, there were worries that Pogba’s place in the France team was not guaranteed due to his poor form at United with some of the French fans even turning against the player. However, coach Didier Deschamps showed Pogba support and assured him of his key role in the French midfield. And indeed he seemed to be proven right as Pogba’s World Cup displays started to accrue more consistency and effectiveness. He was a threat going forward, always looking for the likes of Mbappe and Griezzman with his inch-perfect passes to unlock defenses. Defensively he also did due diligence as he was constantly falling back to assist Kante and company. Moreover, he also scored some crucial goals for France, including one in the final. Overall, Pogba’s World Cup play was a refreshing reminder of the talent he possesses and how impactful of a player he can be when motivated. It was like he had something to prove to the world and especially his critics, those of whom have been on his case for some time now. He definitely proved us wrong (his celebrations at the end of the final said it all). Every Manchester United fan was most definitely pleased with Pogba’s World Cup showing and are surely hoping that he can bring that form to the United team when the season commences.
With the World Cup being signed, sealed and delivered (to France), the focus has now shifted to club level for all players, Pogba included. As mentioned before, the expectations remain high for him and rightly so. I personally believe Pogba has all the attributes to become the best midfielder in the world and emulate the midfield greats such as Luka Modric and Andres Iniesta. Some blame his poor form at club level on Jose Mourinho’s defensive tactics which do not allow Pogba to have the freedom he needs in order to thrive. The validity of that assertion is rather open for various interpretations. But what I know for a fact is that Manchester United can get the best out of Pogba with him playing further up the pitch where he doesn’t have to worry too much about defensive duties. Perhaps the arrival of Brazilian midfielder Fred is the right tonic for Pogba’s chance to shine. It is expected that United will mostly play a three-man midfield with Fred and Matic taking care of the defensive duties and Pogba being the man more responsible for the creativity going forward from midfield. This is what most United fans want, for Pogba’s sake but it all boils down to Mourinho’s preference and we all know he can be very unpredictable with his lineups. Nonetheless, the presence of Fred should surely be the key to unleashing Pogba.
Above all, Pogba’s potential cannot be overlooked. We know he’s one of the best passers of the ball and on his day can make the tightest of defenses look ordinary with his mouth watering passes. His switch of play, footwork, and flair make him lethal and a threat against anyone. As such, coming off a successful World Cup, things look promising for Pogba and many believe the real Pogba will be unleashed this season. Great times lie ahead in the Premier League and many will be keeping tabs on Pogba’s performances. Hopefully, he will shame his critics and earn the respect he deserves with some outstanding performances throughout the season. More importantly, I believe Pogba is the one man who can help the Red Devils wrestle the title away from their cross-town rivals Manchester City and finally satiate the hopes of United fans longing for Premiership glory, a triumph of which they last enjoyed during Sir Alex Ferguson’s era.