Paul Pogba: Pantomime villain or misunderstood hero?
12th May 2019: The curtains fell on yet another torrid season for Manchester United. Having succumbed to a 2-0 defeat to an already relegated Cardiff City at Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his men went on their customary tour round the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, apologising to the fans.
Paul Pogba, the fans’ go-to scapegoat, was abused by a section of United supporters who launched a broadside against the Frenchman. Nonetheless, Pogba responded amicably, smiling and thanking the fans for their support.
Having witnessed an umpteen number of such incidents against the Parisian, one can’t help but wonder whether the midfielder is deserving of the constant criticism thrown his way.
One of their own?
Pogba was brought to Manchester United, then under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson, in 2009. He initially linked up with the U-18s and won the coaches over with some exhilarating performances.
Ahead of the 2011-12 season, Ferguson promoted Pogba into the first team. A lack of opportunities and refusal to sign a new contract meant that Pogba left on a Bosman to Juventus in the summer of 2012.
In Turin, Pogba was awarded the playing time his talent deserved. He formed a fearsome trio in midfield for Juve alongside Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. Under the counsel of the aforementioned duo, Pogba fine-tuned his art and steadily matured into a complete midfielder.
He had a penchant for the spectacular and by 2015 had established himself as one of the best midfielders in the world. European giants like Barcelona and Real Madrid expressed concrete interest in the player. However, he decided to go back to his roots, back to his once beloved club of Manchester United.
Once Ed Woodward and Jose Mourinho came calling in the summer of 2016, there was no stopping the Frenchman. His transfer back to United was finalized on the 8th of August 2016 at an estimated amount of 89 million pounds, a then world record fee.
United fans celebrated the homecoming of the man they’d labelled as ‘one of their own’.
Pogba’s first season at the club was riddled with inconsistencies. Both the player and manager tried hard to find his best position, but to no avail. As a result, he was deployed in multiple positions: as an attacking midfielder, a defensive mid and as a deep-lying playmaker.
Very often he would seem confused about his role in the team. The world record fee also weighed heavily on his shoulders, and thus he became the recipient of incessant criticism from the fans.
Pundits and analysts tore into him day after day. Every aspect of his life went under the microscope; from his lavish lifestyle to his social media presence, and not to forget his constantly changing hairstyles.
Mourinho however, vehemently and repeatedly defended his star player:
"I feel that the world is losing values and I am scared about the level of envy coming in. It is not Paul's fault that he gets 10 times the money some players did in the past. It is not his fault that some pundits are in real trouble with their lives and need every coin to survive, while Paul is a multi-millionaire.
“I am very happy with Paul ... the best thing is that because of his personality he doesn't give an ass to what people say about him."
An upturn in fortunes
With the intention of freeing Pogba from his shackles and unleashing him higher up the pitch where he could have more of an effect on the game, Mourinho poached Nemanja Matic from his former club Chelsea in the summer of 2017 for a reported 40 million pounds. With his defensive duties being taken care of, Pogba prowled the final third, scoring and assisting at will.
In my opinion, he played some of his best football in a red shirt in the 2017-18 season. And his finest moment arrived late in the month of April against local rivals Manchester City.
City only needed a win to wrap up the Premier League title against their eternal rivals and rub it in their noses. But United, having gone two goals behind, came back to win the game 3-2 courtesy of two goals from their star Frenchman.
United ended the season in second place in the league with Pogba scoring 6 times and assisting 10 goals.
With the onset of the 2018-19 season came Mourinho’s ‘third season syndrome’. United fell to numerous defeats and several players were at war with the manager - namely Pogba, Martial and Sanchez. Mourinho’s training ground bust-up with Pogba that did the rounds on social media indicated that there was something much deeper between the two.
Pogba was seen at Old Trafford, enjoying and laughing about in his Instagram story as United slumped to defeat against Derby County. He even went as far as questioning Mourinho’s tactics after United dragged themselves to a 1-1 draw against Wolves.
In return, Mourinho stripped Pogba of his vice-captaincy. In the ultimate power struggle between player and manager, Pogba triumphed as Mourinho was sacked in December with United languishing in 6th place.
Player power has steadily risen with time and this incident was a testament to that. Pogba apparently even threatened to quit the club if Mourinho was still in charge. His antics earned him the wrath of multiple pundits, such as Graeme Souness, who blasted the player.
Solskjaer was anointed the caretaker manager till the summer. With the new manager came an upturn in fortunes. United went on a winning run with Pogba in the thick of the action.
His form was excellent and in sharp contrast to the lifeless displays he had put up in the last few months of Mourinho’s tenure. Only the Frenchman knows if it was deliberate. Others can only help but wonder.
Even so, this honeymoon period only lasted a while - specifically so up to United’s win over PSG in the Champions League. Indeed, it was after their greatest victory that season, that United went on a dreadful run of form.
The goals began to dry up for Pogba and even those which came arrived in the form of penalties. Rumours of a bust up between Solskjaer and Pogba swirled around. Pogba was roundly criticized by fans and pundits alike for failing to turn up on the pitch.
Despite the club doing everything in favour of its star player, Pogba seemed unhappy.
The issue with Pogba is that he can turn it on when he wants to. It's hard not to fear that his mind is elsewhere, caught up in the rumour mills; until all of his distractions are limited, we may never see the real Pogba.
Fiery in blue, cold in red?
A majority of the accusations directed at the Frenchman have to do with him putting up excellent performances in his national team’s colours while failing to do so consistently for his club. “When he can drive his country to the World Cup trophy why not United to the title?” is a question that is leveled at him regularly.
However, this is a little unfair to the midfielder. When away on national duty, Pogba is part of a group who he understands mentally and emotionally. And with all due respect to the players of Manchester United, there’s a difference between playing with Phil Jones and Raphael Varane.
Pogba may never be the player he was meant to be unless his heart is truly in what he is doing. And right now, at United, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
That said, the amount of criticism directed at the player seems unjustified. United are more than Pogba, and football is not a one-man game. Sometimes his play is poor, yes. But the way he is treated is not even close to what the other players on the team.
Pundits seem to lambaste him for every event of misfortune that befalls the club, and sometimes even the fans expect too much from the player. Pogba spoke about this recently, saying:
"I become another player because of the transfer. Because it was the biggest transfer of history at the time, you get judged differently. You expect more because of the price tag. A good game becomes a normal game, a top game will be a good game."
Until the fans learn to love him for what he is, raise him up every time he falls and shower all their love on their star man, the Pogba in red will never even come close to the one in blue.Published 13 Jun 2019, 18:00 IST