In life and football, you often hear the saying “that you should never go back”. For Paul Pogba, the chance to return to Manchester United in the summer transfer window, was an opportunity to disprove that statement and show that had he unfinished business at Old Trafford following his departure in 2012.
Even before the European Championships in France, the rumours that Pogba was going to return to United from Juventus were rife. A day did not pass over the summer period whereby there was not some form of media speculation on the impending move. Of course, where a world record transfer fee is concerned or expected, there will be little short of media interest; and, as we all know, such behaviour brings web-page clicks and sells papers.
On a daily basis, there seemed to be an ever-changing position. One day Pogba was going to United, the next he was a certainty to sign for Real Madrid, before Mino Raiola would be “quoted” stating Juventus were not keen to sell the player. After a while, the speculation merely became tiresome, and in the eyes of many did Pogba little favours when he was already likely to be burdened with the expectation of a hefty transfer fee.
Eventually, Pogba returned to Old Trafford for a world record transfer fee of £89million where, despite a limited pre-season following the European Championships, he put in good performances against Southampton and Hull City in his opening appearances.
However, as perhaps a consequence of the general uneasiness associated with his price tag, he was over-keen to impress. After several games, it was obvious to see the frustrations of his team mates, as Pogba resorted to shooting from almost anywhere in the final third of the pitch in an effort to get his first goal since returning to United.
Despite expending great effort for much of September, Pogba was unable to impact and influence games like he had at Juventus. That coincided with a period of games where United appeared to struggle to dominate games and their attacking threat seemed almost as limited as under the final stages of Louis Van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford.
When a player is purchased for £89million, one would expect a manager to set his team up to enable that player to flourish and have the maximum influence on games. It was surprising, therefore, that it took such a tactically astute coach such as Mourinho almost two months of the season to realise that the best system to get the best out of Pogba was to utilise him in a 3-man midfield as he had been at Juventus.
Those who have watched Pogba grace the Serie A scene over the previous three seasons with Juventus were all alive to the freedom that he was afforded by both Max Allegri and his predecessor Antonio Conte when in charge of the Bianconeri.
Both Conte and Allegri allowed Pogba the liberty to play in an advanced role in a three man midfield, usually alongside two from a selection of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Roberto Pereyra, Arturo Vidal and Sami Khedira. In many games, Pogba drifted out to the left hand side of the Juventus midfield, linking well with former United favourite, Patrice Evra, and then moving inside to take advantage of the space created by Evra’s well timed overlapping runs from left wing-back.
Despite his performances in the first two games of his return to United, Pogba struggled to adapt to life in a two man midfield alongside Ander Herrera, as the restrictions caused by having defensive duties imposed on him under Mourinho, often left him uncertain of his actual positioning and role in the team.
When one looks at a comparison with his first five games for Juventus, it took Pogba a similar amount of time to find his stride for La Vecchia Signora, although granted at Juve the young Pogba was eased into the first team slowly by Conte. At United, Mourinho immediately thrust the France international into the first team, as one would expect of the man possessing the world record transfer fee. It would not be unfair to say that Pogba struggled to make the impact he and others expected.
It wasn’t until United’s first-half demolition of Leicester City in late September, and then several weeks later the return of Michael Carrick to United’s starting line-up, that Pogba started to show the confidence that saw him become one of the top players in Serie A and also the world’s most expensive player.
Carrick’s return to the United first team, sitting alongside Herrera at the base of the United midfield, allowed Pogba the freedom to find more space in advanced roles, where he could have more influence and impact as an attacking threat for United.
Since Carrick’s re-emergence, Pogba has flourished, save for one significant blip against Liverpool recently, a game when he missed a one-on-one that he should converted and shortly after gave away the penalty that gave Liverpool a 1-1 draw. The 35 year old averages in excess of 14 passes per game to Pogba, and the pair have developed an understanding which allows the France international to receive the ball in more advanced positions and greater space.
Like many top players with a world record transfer tag, Pogba has found himself the subject of much criticism and abuse over the past 5 months. Despite that criticism, Mourinho has shown complete faith in the France international. Other than the Bournemouth game on the opening weekend of the season, which he missed through suspension, he has started every one of Manchester United’s 23 league fixtures this season, contributing four goals and three assists.
One would expect an attacking midfielder to provide a return of around one goal every 4 or 5 games, and Pogba has started to show goal-scoring prowess of his Juve days. In addition to that, his power and ability to carry the ball at pace whilst holding off several defenders has proved ideal for United’s counter-attacks under Mourinho.
Over the past few years, United have lacked that ball carrying midfielder who can glide past midfields, thus forcing the opposition defenders to make the decision whether to retreat deeper, or to move forward to prevent Pogba advancing further. Either way, it creates more space for the other United attackers, and it is not only Michael Carrick with whom Pogba has forged an excellent relationship on the pitch.
Over the past few months, Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have started to show glimpses of a telepathic understanding of each other’s game, with the pair linking well to provide assists for each other and their team mates. It is obvious that there is much that Pogba can learn from the Sweden international, both in terms of handling pressure and maintaining a hunger and desire.
Many United fans will argue that Pogba hasn’t turned a corner recently, merely that there has been little focus on the good things that he has done, and more on the bad. However, as we all know, football is a results business and his ability to influence and impact games will go hand in hand with the team results. There will be little dissection of the minutiae of each game, and more on the end result. Pogba has already showed this season that he has all the attributes to excel at the highest level, with his box to box play, energy, range of passing, creative abilities and ability to arrive in the opposition box at crucial moments.
It is clear that Pogba has always had a desire to succeed, and his decision to leave United cannot have been an easy one. It does however show the self-confidence the France international had in his own ability, a confidence that has been there from his early days at United following his move at 16 years old from Le Havre.
In a recent interview with James Ducker of The Daily Telegraph, Pogba’s former youth team coach, Warren Joyce, said “He always wanted to be the best player in the world. He set his standards to try and do that. I had a go at him a couple of times because he never tackled. But he’s always had that inner drive to want to do that”.
Pogba still has much to do to show that he is deserving of elevation to the same level as such luminaries such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. The talent and ability is there though, and it clear from Joyce’s comments that the work ethic is too.
The only potential obstacle to 23 year old’s rise to the next level of the game, is the continued razzamatazz that goes with the “Pogba brand”. For every bad game that Pogba has, the more the critics will emerge advising him to forget the ever changing haircuts, the “Dab”, his dancing antics with Jesse Lingard or the twitter emoji that goes with each use of #Pogba on twitter.
It was the personalised twitter hashtag emjoi episode that set Pogba up for the most criticism. In the week prior to the recent Liverpool game, all the talk was of how Pogba had turned a corner, and how he was now justifying his world record transfer fee. The stage was therefore built for him to show that he was the best midfielder in the Premier League, whilst also putting a major dent in the title hopes of United’s fiercest rivals.
However, in reality, Pogba was on a hiding to nothing in the days after the emoji was announced. The emoji was announced on the weekend of the Liverpool game in which Pogba struggle, and at times it was almost as if there was other stuff on his mind. Whilst one accepts that Manchester United are a significant commercial brand, they are first and foremost a football club. One simply cannot imagine such an episode occurring 10 years ago before such a significant game.
After an excellent November and December, which has seen them go unbeaten in the League for fourteen games, United have suffered a blip over the last few weeks that is not dissimilar to that which they suffered early in the season. They remain in contention for the top four, although title success seems likely to elude them this season given Chelsea’s surge under Conte.
Whilst Champions League qualification will be an utmost priority, United do however have the hope of multiple Cup successes, with a League Cup final against Southampton to come at the end of February, a winnable FA Cup fifth round game away at Blackburn Rovers, and a double legged encounter with St. Etienne imminent in the last-32 of the Europa League.
If United are to succeed on at least two of those fronts, they will need Pogba’s performances to match the levels of performance expected of a player for whom they paid a world record transfer fee. His impact will, in the short term, be best achieved by his ever-increasing relationships with Carrick and Ibrahimovic continuing to bear fruit. The past few months have seen him show that level of performance as he replicates the form showed at Juventus.
During United’s recent run of draws, it has been obvious to all to see that it has been Pogba driving the team forward trying to influence games and force a victory. The signs show that he is starting to take ever increasing responsibility when the side are struggling to break down teams, and that can only serve him and United well in the long term.
Everyone who witnessed Pogba in action in Serie A from 2013, will know that he is more than capable of being the catalyst that heads United’s campaign on four fronts. Should United end the season with two cup trophies and Champions League qualification, Pogba will already be able to use that as evidence to justify the fee paid for him in August.