Has there ever been a more divisive figure in English football? The man so many love to hate, and many more back to the hilt. Paul Pogba is a player who seemingly has it all but doesn’t always show it.
Manchester United’s 2020 Europa League semi-final game versus Sevilla is a good opportunity to exhibit what Pogba has, what Pogba has not, and perhaps vindicate and demonstrate some of those popular opinions.
Hated, Adored, Never Ignored
I will first get the social aspects out of the way. Paul Pogba causes problems among a certain demographic; purists of English football, a generation who believe in blood and thunder football, leaving your heart (and sometimes your head) on the pitch, those who wouldn’t dream of personal promotion videos, fashionable hair cuts or trademarking a dance move.
Pogba was described by one pundit as ‘selfish’ and that perhaps ‘we’re seeing the player Fergie didn’t fancy first time around’. Alex Ferguson revealed in his 2015 biography Leading that he had wanted to retain Paul Pogba but the player, plus agent Mina Raiola, turned instead towards Juventus. The same pundit described Pogba as a player who ‘plays for himself’ and is only interested in ‘how cool or clever he looks’. Opinions; difficult to quantify, even more difficult to prove, provided by a man paid to provide football opinions. These are the kind of ignorant, dated, ill-educated assumptions that have followed Paul Pogba around since he rejoined Manchester United.
The truth, in my own opinion, is that Paul Pogba is a relaxed, fun-loving, devoted young man who uses his fantastic talent and athletic ability to develop and champion a certain distinct, usually effective style on the pitch. Difficult to quantify, but I’ll try my best to prove it.
The big argument from those firmly in the Paul Pogba camp revolves around his ‘natural’ ability. It’s a confusing term because all professional footballers, from the semi-pro to the elite, have natural ability, but the kind of natural ability Pogba possesses is more than that. It’s an instinctive ability, a certain grace and surety in movement and action. Much of this revolves around self-belief – that vital but often seldom recognized attribute had by elite sportspeople – but in Pogba’s case it can strike as almost arrogant.
Here’s an example of one of his completed dribbles in the Sevilla game:
He recovers the ball, drags back, drags back again covered by two defenders, finds the yard of space to move the ball into Fernandes in the right half-space and a half-chance opens up.
It’s so effective; Pogba has beaten the Sevilla midfield with two deft manipulations of the ball and one simple short pass, and he looks so languid doing it. He, quite literally, makes it look too easy.
He follows the move with a slow jog to the edge of the area awaiting another second ball. Having started and created the move, Pogba is now in 5 metres of space 20 yards from goal having barely broken a sweat. Effective-languor is the phrase I’m penning for it.
Here’s another example, this time with a long pass:
Man United are in a defensive moment this time, and Pogba is sitting in his favourite central pocket just inside the 18-yard box. He glances over his shoulder and watches a high ball all the way. In one sweeping controlled touch, he takes the ball into his range of movement, moves from right to left, and finds his runner free and willing on the flank.
How many midfielders, in a tight European semi-final, are going to try to control that ball on the edge of their own area, and how many will clear their lines? How many would be applauded by coaches, head coaches, and fans alike for clearing that ball? Not Paul Pogba; Pogba tries the audacious. Pogba is the audacious.
Make it happen
He isn’t afraid of failure, Pogba. The amount of over-ambitious long passes, 35-yard screamers, hopeful defense-splitting through passes he attempts mean he can’t be afraid of failure. As with the penetrative, cutting edge style of his friend Bruno, high risk leads to failure more often than it leads to high reward. We saw plenty of this against Sevilla.
Here are a couple of long passes, the first more conservative than the second:
The first is the kind of raking long-ranger you see week in, week out in the Premier League. Jonjo Shelvey plays three of these per game up in Newcastle. The key to this move isn’t the pass itself – though it was a textbook, beautifully executed long pass – it is in the movement of Pogba leading to the pass.
Pogba, pass, return; dribble, pass, return; head up, range, and execute. He’s the fulcrum, the conductor, the ball belongs to Pogba; he just uses the people around him as tools to manipulate and sculpt the space needed to do what he wants to do.
The second is quite different: Pogba has breezed past his man with his controlling touch, nice and effective but nothing special. The interesting touch is his third, the pass itself. As he moves to face his opponent, there is a clear and (with the benefit of hindsight and slow-motion replays) pretty obvious short passing lane open to Anthony Martial, but the clear and obvious isn’t Pogba’s style.
Instead, he attempts a first time curling long pass with the left instep to the runner on the flank. He looks awkward, he looks almost off-balance, he hasn’t set himself for the pass at all; Greenwood – the receiver – certainly isn’t expecting it, but if Pogba pulls it off the line is beaten and the young, fast, deadly finisher is away and likely through on goal. He came close to pulling it off.
It’s instinctive. He hasn’t measured his options, in a split second he assessed what he has in front of him and looked to execute. There is no thought to whether or not he can, he simply does.
Pogba can measure a situation, he isn’t always going for broke with the big defense-splitter, he knows how to open the space to play the measured pass. But even then, as demonstrated in the first clip, he is making big progressive gains on the field. Every movement and action Pogba makes, the simple and the exquisite, seems to revolve around ensuring his team is in a better position than when he received the ball.
But, as with any high-risk venture, there are often prices to pay.
The Price to Pay
Paul Pogba is not the perfect player – if such a creature exists. To go back to the criticisms he faces from pundits who came from a time when midfielders in England didn’t operate the Pogba way; many of those criticisms circulate around a certain apathy, around the fact he apparently doesn’t fight to the death for position or for possession, and this is often true of Pogba.
Here we see Sevilla’s winning goal:
I don’t believe there is a criticism for his initial positioning, his team is in possession and Pogba has no reason to follow his marker. His reaction to Greenwood losing possession is not great, there isn’t exactly a desperate effort to stop the pass but he had a lot of ground to cover with very little time in which to do so. The problem was more in the efforts he made to close the passing lanes in the follow-up.
Those long legs get him back into his own half in no time, and by the time the switch is made and the attack heats up, Pogba is in a good defensive area. The problem is he stops once he finds position. There is no desire to move to block the lane and intercept the quite obvious offensive pass to Banega. By the time the ball is delivered into De Jong, Pogba is striding in his own careless way back towards that favoured pocket of space on the edge of his area.
Once he finds position, he doesn’t adapt to the situation; he is defending the pitch, not the players. I wouldn’t say he lacks effort, he made up the ground needed, after all; he is fulfilling his tactical duty through a defensive transition, but he does lack desire to stop the move. He isn’t leading the defensive effort.
Though it should be noted, he isn’t the only one. The team looked tired, they looked very lethargic, and after the kind of schedule that the game brought to an end, it was no real surprise.
There were a small number of careless passes, occasions where he tried too much at the wrong time, and a number of occasions where possession was lost because the first touch was too brave, too progressive, he fancied himself a little too much in a difficult battle; but that’s Pogba. He will frustrate you when he loses the ball after taking the difficult option, or he fires it into the stands from 30 yards attempting a goal of the decade contender; again, that’s Pogba.
He isn’t usually conservative, but he can be; he isn’t usually defensive-minded, but he can defend. He is style, he is flair, he is ability, athleticism, heart and soul. But heart and soul doesn’t always manifest itself as battle cries and bloody noses; heart and soul can also be delicate, audacious, artistic.
He isn’t what a lot of us want him to be, and he isn’t ever going to be. I think if we accept him for who he is, both Paul Pogba the man and Paul Pogba the player, we will all be happier. He is a lot of fun to watch, analyze and enjoy.
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