As the world’s most expensive footballer took a wild swing-and-miss in the dying embers of Manchester United’s dismal draw with AFC Bournemouth last weekend the sound of knives being sharpened was almost audible. The reaction to that pivotal miscue was a perfect snapshot of the hyperbolic culture that has ingrained itself in modern football. There is no better example of the phenomenon than Paul Pogba.
The tribal battlefield of social media is rarely fiercer than when discussing the 23-year-old Frenchman. To his detractors, Pogba is a “fraud.” To his most ardent supporters, “the best player in the Premier League.” The truth, as is usually the case, is somewhere in the middle. Pogba is a hugely talented young man, with the attributes to rise as high as he wants in the game. He is not yet a world-class player, nor is he as overrated as some would contest.
"Predictable attacks by rival supporters contain some truth. There have been moments of breath-taking quality, but the last 20 of United’s draw with Bournemouth demonstrated he is still some way from the top."
The £89 million that United paid for Pogba’s services must provoke mixed feelings in the midfielder. It has afforded him the attention he seems to crave, yet Pogba faces an uphill battle to convince some that he is worth even a fraction of that fee. Lionel Messi aside, there is perhaps no player in world football who is deserving of such a valuation.
Pogba is not the type of player to dribble past four defenders, nor will he ever score 50 goals a season. Unless he produces something miraculous every game, the crass accusation of being a “fraud” will follow him. Yet, the predictably over-the-top attacks by rival supporters also contain some truth. Pogba’s most devoted followers contest that he has been near flawless all season. There have been moments of breath-taking quality, and during United’s resurgent winning run over Christmas the Frenchman was undoubtedly a driving force.
However, the last 20 minutes of the weekend’s draw with Bournemouth demonstrated why he is still some way from the top. As the Reds pressed for a winner, and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic wildly off-form, Old Trafford looked to Pogba for salvation. The midfielder’s contribution was chaotic – too often trying to force the issue, giving the ball away needlessly and generally lacking composure. His scuffed attempt at goal in the final seconds was merely the culmination of a miserable attempt to impose himself on the game.
His performance against Liverpool in January, as United looked to rubber-stamp an impressive run of form, was similarly frenzied. As Pogba’s personalised emoji lit up advertising boards around Old Trafford, he gave away a penalty with a bizarre handball and looked like a man trying too hard to impress.
The Frenchman’s displays have been less erratic since, but there is still the sense that he is feeling the considerable weight of expectation created by his astronomical price-tag. At times, Pogba makes the ridiculous look simple, but he often struggles with the more basic aspects of the game. Perhaps the best thing for Pogba to do is accept that he will never fully justify the silly amount of money paid for him, and simply focus on being the best player he can be. After all, if he does reach his full potential, he could be a giant of the game for the next 10 years.
In terms of improvement, Pogba must start influencing the important games more than he has done thus far. José Mourinho’s side is still in the hunt for a further two trophies and there will no doubt be occasions where United’s big names need to come to the fore. Despite taking flak on occasions this season, Ibrahimovic has been the man who has rescued the team more than most. Mourinho’s players could learn a thing or two from the Swede, but his ability to flourish under pressure is most applicable to Pogba.
At Juventus, Pogba scored only once in total against the Old Lady’s biggest rivals Roma, Internazionale and AC Milan. At Euro 2016, he was tipped to be the star of the tournament, but even as France progressed to the final it was teammate Antoine Griezmann who propelled Les Bleus forward. Pogba’s struggles in the important fixtures in England are not a new phenomenon, but the enormous potential he clearly possesses means he should be given the time to rectify his big game woes.
These well-documented shortcomings do not necessarily mean that Pogba has failed so far at United. That can only be the case if he is judged directly against the nonsensical transfer fee. Beyond that metric, Pogba has shown enough quality, albeit inconsistently, to corroborate Ander Herrera’s claim that the midfielder can “change a game in a second.”
To his credit, even the 23-year-old’s staunchest critics could not reasonably accuse him of hiding from responsibility. Regardless of the end product, Pogba is constantly hunting the ball, he wants to influence the game.
The challenge now is to demonstrate his undoubted quality on a more regular basis, cutting out the basic errors that devalue some of the more sublime passes or pieces of skill. Admittedly, Pogba’s teammates’ profligacy in front of goal, as well as some other fine margins, have denied him goals and assists that would go some away to appease the baying Twitter mob.
The money involved in his transfer means that Pogba will never be afforded the lower expectations that his flawed, yet still prodigious talent realistically deserves. That is a scenario with which he simply must deal.
Of course, Pogba’s extrovert character and love of social media do not lend themselves to being given an easy ride by the public. After all, he is such a valuable marketing tool for Adidas that this persona is unlikely to be toned down any time soon.
Yet, neither is the intense scrutiny of everything he does on and off the pitch fair. The Frenchman is not yet the top-class player some fans claim him to be. Nor is he the failure that so many wish he was. But, if Pogba is to become a United great, he must rise above the competing swells of opinion and create a legacy that truly speaks for itself.