When Paul Pogba was about nine or 10, a man called Sambou Tati - his youth coach at US Roissy - decided to convert him from a striker into a midfielder. At the time, Pogba was a brilliant footballer with one glaring weakness: he loved the ball so much he would simply dribble and dribble with it for as long as he could. By moving further back, Tati reasoned, Pogba might have less time on the ball, but would offer greater influence on the team as a whole.
Although he probably didn’t know it, in so doing Tati had established an entirely new field of footballing study, one that continues to absorb and confound the game’s greatest minds to this day: How To Get The Best Out Of Paul Pogba.
Yes, it seems we’re still playing this game in 2021. The clenched fists. The bulging veins. The impassioned rants. The battery of television pundits warning that unless he bucks his ideas up, this 27-year-old World Cup winner and four-times Serie A champion may never fulfil his potential. And yet for all this, over recent weeks there have been moments when it feels like we might just be getting somewhere.
Since re-establishing himself in Manchester United's starting XI last month, Pogba has been quietly exemplary. His three goals - stunning efforts from long range - have directly contributed to wins at West Ham, Burnley and Fulham. His defensive contributions are up. His positional discipline has been good. Even in defeat by Sheffield United on Wednesday, he was probably United's best player. All of which has naturally generated a fair amount of excitement and a fair few questions. Is this a blip or a breakthrough? Is Pogba good again? Was he always good? Will he stay good?
Symbiosis and context
In a way, the very framing of the issue is the problem here. So much of the debate around Pogba since he rejoined United seems to have taken place in a weird vacuum, divorced from symbiosis and context, as if the performance of a single player could be isolated from that of the team around him. As it turns out - and really, this should surprise nobody - if you surround a good player with other good players in a successful team, they may just begin to look better themselves.
Partly, you sense, this is a tyranny of expectations: a function of the way Pogba arrived, the world-record fee he arrived for, the state United were in when they signed him and the sort of player he was assumed to be. "For £89 million, Pogba will be expected to win big games, grab games by the scruff of the neck," Gary Neville said when he signed in 2016. Jamie Carragher said on Sky a couple of months ago: "I thought he might have an impact like [Frank]Lampard at Chelsea, [Steven]Gerrard at Liverpool, Yaya Touré at Man City, players who drove their teams to titles, European Cups."
But Pogba has never been this sort of player: the one-man hurricane who drags a team to glory. And nor, in many respects, were the others. Lampard had Michael Essien and Claude Makélélé alongside him; Gerrard had Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano; Touré had Fernandinho and David Silva. Even in their most inspired moments, they were uplifted by teammates, not the other way around.
Pogba was 23 when he returned to Old Trafford, and in a way had spent his whole career learning: from Paul Scholes in his first United stint, from Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo at Juventus. Now, the learning would stop. His job would be to turn around a dysfunctional superclub at the age of 23. And not with goals or saves, but from central midfield, with the likes of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Scott McTominay and Jesse Lingard for company. And when it didn't work, we shouted at him to try harder, as if he were a racehorse or a recalcitrant piece of computer hardware, rather than a human playing a team sport.
Perhaps this is why Pogba has so often been the focal point of United fans’ criticism, a media obsession, a surrogate for the decrepitude of the wider organisation. And perhaps it is only now, with United second in the league, that we see just how reliant Pogba’s game is on a functioning collective around him. The 25-yard screamers are really just the ornamentation: at heart Pogba is a combination player, all neat touches and dainty triangles, and sweeping diagonal passes for quick, ruthless forwards to finish.
Numbers tell only part of this story. Pogba’s raw creative stats are down in almost all areas: fewer passes, fewer touches, fewer dribbles, fewer shots. But he is winning the ball more, competing more in the air, doing more with less. As Tati realised, sometimes Pogba is at his most effective when he isn’t always on the ball. “Because I like to get a lot of touches, teams press you more,” Pogba said this week. “Now I try and play quicker, play more as a team than an individual.”
The lingering question, of course, is how sustainable this all is. It was only last month, after all, that Pogba's agent Mino Raiola declared that Pogba's time at Old Trafford was "over" and claimed it was best that he was sold. There are 18 months left on his contract. With no new deal in the offing and United unwilling to let him go for free, all signs still point to a parting of the ways in the summer.
Shortly after the last World Cup, Pogba’s former manager José Mourinho speculated that he is at his best in “closed habitats” - short, confined periods where he can focus his energies on a distinct goal. It’s possible that something similar is happening now. That with the end in sight, Pogba can simply focus on the next few months, on winning the league title and leaving in a blaze of glory. If so, then against all the odds, Pogba’s return to United may yet have a happy ending all round. - Guardian