Paul Pogba: Now what?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 20, 2018
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The prologue to Jose Mourinho’s departure from Manchester United has not flattered Paul Pogba. The scheduled tweet which was posted less than an hour after Mourinho’s sacking was almost certainly a mistake beyond his control, but the aesthetic it created was no less ugly as a result. In the days since, reports have also portrayed Pogba in a childish light, vividly describing his cackling glee at Mourinho’s demise.

This, it should be said, was always the likely outcome: relations between the two had evidently deteriorated to such a point that only one of them could stay at Old Trafford. Pogba is the club’s record signing, he is the diamond point of their global marketing strategy, and so it’s no surprise that he won that war; when a manager places himself between a club and an asset, football now tends to show exactly where its priorities lie.

Nevertheless, the line between hero and villain in this saga isn’t nearly so clear. Mourinho has paid for his failings, of which there were many, and his dealings with Pogba often conformed to an established pattern. While criticism of the midfielder was frequently valid, its overt and public nature often felt unnecessary. If leaks from the dressing-room are to be believed, the way the Portuguese spoke to the player, particularly during their final weeks, was also needlessly demeaning.

Demeaning and familiar. Mourinho has developed a habit of targeting players of a particular profile and indulged it at each of his last three clubs, essentially inviting supporters to place their loyalty in one camp or another. The sacred Iker Casillas was slain at Real Madrid, while Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were – notoriously – all prodded repeatedly during his second spell at Chelsea. It’s tempting, then, to feel sympathy for Pogba. Mourinho has become football’s pre-eminent villain in his latter years, meaning that whomever falls foul of him is cast, by default, as the hero. That’s true to an extent in this instance, because Pogba is only really guilty of being the gaudiest bauble on a badly decorated tree, but Mourinho’s sacking shouldn’t be taken as any sort of vindication.

The mistake is to confuse Pogba the player, with Paul the person. The latter is charismatic and intelligent, flamboyant and urbane. Given the stage on which the sport now takes place, all of those traits are strengths in a modern professional. After all, it takes conviction to influence a Premier League game and ego to survive in a World Cup final. Ironically, while Pogba is often criticised for those emblematic traits – his hair, his body language, his social media persona – they manifest from the same qualities which underpin his value as a player. The two cannot be separated and so those who would prefer Pogba to shave his head, dress in jumper, jeans and Green Flash, and shrink back into his shell, are being intentionally obtuse.

They’re also guilty of ignoring what they already know: that football has changed and its personalities adhere to an entirely different standard. The old ideal of the reticent pro is now a fantasy. The punditocracy may clamour for the footballers of their day, who – with more than a little selective memory – lived and breathed the game, hated the publicity, and didn’t want any part of the lifestyle which comes with fantastic wealth, but this is a different era and, within that context, there’s nothing exceptional about Paul Pogba. He’s young and rich and he makes that look like fun; the footballers who don’t do that are the curiosity.

Still, while most of the anecdotes relating to the Mourinho feud are one-sided, there are more than a few which depict Pogba in a poor light. One of the most recent – and damning – involves his response to Mourinho’s assertion that Frank Lampard was the perfect midfielder. Lampard was certainly a fine role-model and a pertinent example of maximised potential, but Pogba was reportedly dismissive, responding only by facetiously asking how many World Cups Lampard managed to win.

All of these reports need to be approached with caution because, clearly, both sides have been busy briefing over the past 24 hours. Nonetheless, Pogba’s performances have often been underwhelming and his failure to properly evolve since joining Manchester United, combined with these claims of petulance, suggests something less than healthy. While it’s true that very few players developed under Mourinho, the tone of his displays were often discouraging; the highlights from Southampton and West Ham, for instance, remain very fresh in the mind.

No player is impervious to bad form, but there is no struggle evident in Pogba’s situation. Perhaps that’s an impression created by his languid style, but there’s rarely any sense that he’s fighting his own malaise or raging desperately to make an impact. That’s an amateur’s remark rather than an educated analysis, but it’s a difficult observation to ignore completely. He looks like a player content to operate inside his comfort zone, safe in the knowledge that United’s general ailments provide a rational diagnosis. It’s convenient. It’s also supported by some very real problems, but that still isn’t the trait of an elite player.

The role of that figure, the most gifted member of a team, is to protect his side when they aren’t performing well. Think of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, but also examples from beyond their private universe. How often did Yaya Toure jolt a flat Manchester City during their first two title runs. His goal at Newcastle, his performance against Crystal Palace. What about Didier Drogba’s role in Chelsea’s Champions League win and his performances against Barcelona and Bayern Munich. A level down, how regularly has Wilfried Zaha lifted a dire Crystal Palace team to an improbable result. Having that status within a side comes with certain responsibilities and, more often than not and irrespective of their surroundings, the player meets them. By contrast, Pogba is a tactical prisoner, helpless within the ineptitude.

Part of the suspicion surrounding him is, of course, informed by his transfer-fee. There are those who argue that Pogba shouldn’t be forced to shoulder the blame for what has been a group failure, but then that’s one of the unfortunate privileges of being a rare player signed for an extraordinary amount of money. Unfortunately, up until now, there has been a yawning chasm between his status in the game, the way his image and magnetism are used by Manchester United, and his presence on the field. They are almost two different people. In fact, rarely in English football has there been greater disparity between perception and reality, or theory and tangible sporting benefit.

That’s an issue which bears no relation to the tedious conservative angst over his personality. Instead, it’s concerned only with his view of his place in the game’s hierarchy. In his mind, was his move to Manchester United a final destination, in essence a reward for what he achieved at Juventus? Now that he is the most expensive player in British footballing history and has a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck, is he now content to exist on that reputation for the rest of his prime? Or, as would be more healthy, does he possess that maniacal appetite for self-improvement which is found in the DNA of nearly all of the game’s greats.

If Pogba wasn’t so fabulously talented and if he wasn’t so plausibly capable of ascending into the game’s pantheon, then those questions wouldn’t hang in the air. But his theoretical capabilities are all so obvious. If he wants it, the footballing world is his. He has the technique, the skill, the mind and the body; he is the prototypical modern midfielder, perfect for the contemporary age.

And, crucially, people want to see what those overwhelming attributes can add up to. Beyond the tribalism and bluster, supporters will always be seduced by excellence. Nobody ever got bored of watching Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or Roger Federer, and golf has never been the same since Tiger Woods’ dominance ended. While some of the ire towards Pogba is unfortunately instructed by something other than sport, the legitimate criticism he faces is provoked by his failure to become that desired spectacle. Three years after his return to England, where are the highlights? Where is that vision and that purpose, why is he not ridiculing defenders with that refined touch and decimating them with that long stride? Of course people feel short-changed and, actually, its a situation quite separate from Jose Mourinho.

But that’s the illusion perpetuated by this melodrama: it has simplified the Pogba issue down to a personality clash, creating a situation in which the manager’s temperament and judgement is responsible for every loose touch and indulgent gesture. Mourinho has been complicit in some of that, he clearly didn’t know how to manage the player, but now he’s gone and the excuses have followed him through the door. Free from those distractions and under more truthful lighting, Paul Pogba must close the gap between what he is and what he should be.

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