5 Reasons Paul Pogba Should be Cut Some Slack
15th March 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Since making his record-breaking £89 million return to Manchester United last summer, Paul Pogba has come in for more than his fair share of criticism.
A high degree of scrutiny was inevitable given his price tag and the fact that he was joining one of the most polarising clubs in world football. There are swathes of people watching his every move in hope that he slips up so they can write him off as a flop or a fraud.
It’s fair to say that over the last few weeks Pogba’s performances for United have flattered to deceive, but there was a sustained period of around five months, after he settled into his new surroundings, in which the Frenchman was consistently the Red Devils’ best player.
Following United’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this week, the criticism of Pogba was at an all-time high.
Jose Mourinho came out in defence of his star player after the game. “We have to be positive, the players were phenomenal but Pogba was by far the best player on the pitch,” the Portuguese coach said.
“He was a giant on the pitch. After him, all my other boys were fantastic.”
The scorn directed at Pogba on social media was over the top, but Mourinho’s hyperbolic assertion was equally ludicrous; the former Juventus man certainly wasn’t “the best player on the pitch.”
However, there are several factors at play this season which are perhaps preventing Pogba setting the world alight as many seem to have expected him to. When considering these points, perhaps the 23-year-old should be cut some slack.
Pogba’s often been played out of position
It’s been well documented that Pogba is at his most comfortable playing on the left of a three-man midfield – that’s the position from which he produced his best football for Juventus.
Pogba has spent some time in that role for Man United, but has too often been played as part of a deep double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The absence of a dedicated holding midfielder behind him means that the Frenchman is hamstrung by the need to be aware of his defensive duties.
If Pogba’s disappointing displays in the latter stages of Euro 2016 with France taught us anything, it was that he is ineffective in such a role. If Mourinho intends to get the best out of his superstar signing, he must replicate the midfield set-up which helped him thrive in Turin, rather than fit him into a sub-optimum position.
He had no pre-season
One of the knock-on effects of the drawn-out transfer saga that Pogba became embroiled in last summer was that he wasn’t able to join up with his new team-mates for a proper pre-season.
Having taken part in France’s run to the European Championships final, the 23-year-old was given an extended break, with the player choosing to spend several weeks in the USA to recharge his batteries.
By the time he has put pen to paper on his record-breaking return to United, the Red Devils had already completed the vast majority of the pre-season training, meaning that Pogba had little time to acclimatise to his new team, and wasn’t able to benefit from the intensive fitness work aimed at helping players reach peak performance ahead of the new campaign.
He’s started 104 games since the start of last season
After 49 games in all competitions last season, helping Juventus secure a domestic double, Pogba then started all but one of Les Bleus’ Euro 2016 matches. This term, he has been one of United’s most relied upon performers, having made 41 appearances.
That all adds up to a staggering 104 starts for club and country since the beginning of last season – that’s practically two full campaigns of football with little break in between, and there’s still two months to play before the 2016-17 is brought to a close.
It’s quite reasonable to think that Pogba might be a little fatigued by this point, making his recent downturn in form pretty understandable. Superhuman feats are expected of the world’s most expensive footballer, but there are physical limits from which no player in exempt.
First senior season without a winter break
Another reason to think that Pogba is suffering from fatigue at the moment is the fact that, having played in Serie A since he was 19, this is his first full senior season without a winter break.
In Italy, the 23-year-old would have benefitted from recuperating over the Christmas period. Considering the aforementioned number of games he has played in the last couple of seasons, such a period of rest would have served him well.
Instead, combined with the amount of game time he has played and a lack of preparation due to having no real pre-season under his belt, adapting to life without a winter break is a factor that has been overlooked for Pogba this term, but it should not be underplayed.
He’s still only 23
Yes, the fee was enormous; yes, he was as complicit as anyone is ensuring the hype machine that surrounded his Old Trafford return cranked up into full gear. But, as 23, Pogba is still a young player, especially for a central midfielder.
There seems to be a disconnect between the expectation of what Pogba should be capable of for United, and the reality of where he is developmentally at this stage of his career. If you’d have asked any regular Serie A viewer for their opinion of the Frenchman last season, almost all will have noted his immense talent but given the caveat that he is still raw and has plenty of developing to do.
If United had done their research before making their move for Pogba, which they surely did, they’d have been well aware of the fact that they were paying as much for his potential, for what he could eventually become, as for the player he is right now.
Yet, most fans judge Pogba up against the most high-calibre and experienced elite players in the world. “He’s not producing Messi or Ronaldo levels of goals and assists” goes the common criticism. Well, neither were Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo at his at his age, even discounting the fact that they play in much more attacking positions.
Juventus forward Paulo Dybala is regarded as one of the finest young players around, and spoken of as potentially being able to develop into a Ballon d’Or contender some day. The Argentinian is 23, the same age as Pogba, yet nobody wants to think of the United man as a young player.
The price tag is largely responsible for that, but it doesn’t alter the fact that Pogba is still a developing young player. Just because a world record fee changed hands to secure his transfer does not mean that he matured into a fully-formed world class star over night.
Regardless of what he does on the pitch, Pogba will be judged harshly this season. But United fans will likely get a much clearer picture of their £89 million man next term and in the years that follow.
For now, the moments of magic – even if they have been more fleeting than many had hoped – are only a glimpse of what Pogba, given the right platform and coaching, will go onto produce on a weekly basis at Old Trafford for years to come.