The curious case of Pogba's pendulum-like performances
There he stands, looking at the goal totally unmoved but almost immediately, agrees with the crowd. He nods repeatedly and as the cameras zoom in on the French international, its evident he is uttering the words, “Pogba, Pogba, Pogba!” approving his own ingenuity. He then raises his right arm and then points to the United faithfuls suggesting it was all for them, freshly baked PogBoom, PogMade just for them. It’s one of those moments where he is completely captured in his element, moments that they who behold secretly wish they would be lifetime experiences but at the same time still in touch with reality. Such is what Paul Labile Pogba is capable of, a joy to the world even including his haters on his day, so good that you would want to eat him - but also equally frustrating on other days. He had just scored his second goal of the night, Manchester United’s third as they beat Huddersfield Town 3-1 on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer premier league return to Old Trafford. After falling out of favor in Mourinho’s United in the first half of the season, the 25-year-old born to Guinean parents, would then bag another brace in the ensuing match against Bournemouth making it 4 goals in just 2 matches. The most appropriate word to coin the moment is PogBack! But still, no one knows how long it will last.
Cloud-nine in Turin
We still don’t know how long it will last but it’s no secret that no living football fan would give up the opportunity to see this beastly player at his best. Perhaps only them whose teams would have the difficult job of stopping him. Born in Langy-sur-Marne, Seine-et-Marne France to Guinean parents, Paul Pogba began playing football at the age of eight, together with his older brothers Florentin and Mathias who both represent the Guinean national team. He would then climb up the ranks through the academies of Roissy en Brie, Torcy and Le Havre before being captured by Manchester United in 2009. He stood out in Red Devils’ youth side and grew up to be a notable leader on and off the pitch, earning the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson who handed him three first team appearances before he left for the Serie A’s Juventus in search of some elusive game time. He felt ready for the big league but United was being extra careful and patient in involving him, so he left. Paul was 19 years-old. What followed after is no news to many, four complete years of PogBooms. He quickly became the Serie A’s most loved kid, funky hairstyles, funny celebrations and of course piledrivers that journeyed into the back of the net freely, at his own will and helping Juve to four consecutive Serie A titles and four other domestic cups. In 178 appearances across 4 years for the Old Lady, he banged 34 goals and assisted 28 others playing in the central midfield and deployed further up the pitch in a more attacking role in his latter years. These numbers actually do little justice in describing all he became adored for, nicknamed II Polpo Paul (“Paul the Octopus”) for “his long legs that look like tentacles when he is running or tackling,” and “Pogboom” for his explosive style and boundless energy on the field of play. Strong in the air, remarkable upper and lower body strength, speed, bags of skills, flair, stamina and creativity all on in one player is unbelievable. Endowments that make a him a rare gem in the century. Manifesting all those week-in and out is entirely a different story.
The underlying fact is that in Turin, under the leading and supporting efforts of the likes of the experienced Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira and Andreas Pirlo in the middle of the park, he became one of the most unplayable midfielders in the world. The freedom to express himself, make mistakes with almost no team responsibility which rested on the more senior players, groomed him to become world’s most expensive football player at the time. Eventually returning to the Old Trafford for a then record ee of €105 million. Ironically, the boy who left Manchester returned a man and the responsibilities of the club would soon be bestowed on him.
Paul ain’t the answer, he is the fun
Now, here is the meat of my argument. Pogba is less of “your professional footballer” working so hard on his “career,” he just likes playing football and gets paid big money while he is at it. He is not too far from the category of the Ronaldinhos or his boyhood hero, the Brazilian Ronaldo. Paul returned to Manchester at a time where the mighty United and Mourinho were desperate to return to legendary status after some sorry years with David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. He was meant to be a main ingredient in the answer, which is so contrary to his nature. The pressures of the price tag and the hype around him, choked the player in an interesting way. Paul just remained himself in the midst of all the expectations. He joked, cut his hair, made some mistakes and worked on his game and development while at it. It just didn’t happen at the rate at which Manchester United and the world wanted him to. Just like at Juventus, he still maintained the 9 goal a season and served up 5 assists - but it was not enough, everyone wanted more. Still, not many got it, that Paul is not a numbers footballer, he is the fun. The guy who gives you goosebumps on the pitch more often than goals. Even at international level for France at the UEFA Euro 2016, because he costed so much, everyone expected something from him. He received a fair share of criticism for some of his performances at the tournament inviting the likes of English legend Gary Lineker to tweet asking if “he is the world’s most overrated player.” Two more matches against Iceland and Germany in the semi-final, Paul burst to redeem himself playing in his favored slightly attacking midfield role, afforded more freedom by Didier Deschamps who introduced N’golo Kante to focus more on the defensive side of the work. Even at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, the Kante-Pogba recipe became the winning formula for France’s success. Less of Kante helping defensively but mostly because the team’s responsibility didn’t entirely rest on him. He got breathing and creative space as the likes of Griezmann, Matuidi, Giroud and Lloris were handed just as much responsibility.
What really is the issue here?
Actually my argument can be summarised as follows. Paul Pogba is obviously a leader, having led the French U-20 side to a FIFA World Cup title in 2013. But it’s not because he is your “serious guy” pushing other teammates but simply because he is a hype man. He creates the atmosphere in the dressing room and jokes with almost everyone in the team. He is a growing footballer who can take shared responsibility and gets into his element when allowed space and freedom to just be himself. That’s how you get more from him. France and Juventus learnt to do just that and got their player. He is primarily the curator of experiences, with a “penchant to do the spectacular” before he is your numbers player. Of course goals and assists are important but Paul gives much more of what has become increasingly scarce in the modern digitized game.