Premier League: The Paul Pogba conundrum
Before you read any further, consider doing all these:
Take a deep breath. Once. Twice. Clear your mind of everything else. Now close your eyes and think of three words that come to you immediately when you think of Paul Pogba.
Now, answer this question with as much honesty as you can muster: Was any one of those words 'consistent'?
Odds are, there weren't. Despite everything the Frenchman has won, despite everything the Frenchman is expected to win, despite all the potential that he is supposed to have, one cannot help but put forth the question - "Well, shouldn't he be?"
When Jose Mourinho was sacked on the 18th of December last year, public opinion - at least on the part of the United fans - was in favor of Paul Pogba. Why not? Here he was, fresh from orchestrating his national side to an incredible World Cup win, suddenly struggling in a sixth placed side which was 19 points below the league leaders at that point.
With dressing room snubs and training day scuffles rumored between the man-in-charge and Pogba, everything should have been fine when the Portuguese was shown the door. To be honest, they were for quite some time.
Since the following EPL game, a 5-1 drubbing of Cardiff City, until the 27th of February where he recorded an assist against Crystal Palace in a 3-1 win, Paul Pogba had nine goals and seven assists to his name in 14 games across all competitions. 14 games, which included 13 unbeaten games for the Red Devils in the EPL and only a 0-2 loss against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League which was eventually won on away goals in the second leg. Whether the run in form of Pogba helped United or the other way around, there was no denying that Pogba looked like a player reborn.
Every criticism of his during the Mourinho era was turned on its head. He was scoring more goals. He was quicker in releasing balls over the top for his strikers. He was running more distance on the pitch and tweeting less off it.
Since then, however, everything has come crashing down.
A 2-0 loss against Arsenal away from home was the beginning of the slump, and Manchester United have never really recovered from it yet. Following that, they have been knocked out of the FA cup by Wolverhampton, knocked out of the UCL by Barcelona conveniently over two frustrating legs, and a top-4 finish that was served on a silver platter is suddenly to be bloodied for.
In all these games, Pogba has been involved for 90 minutes and other than two penalties against West Ham, there was nothing to show for it. What's worse, all the criticisms of the past have creeped up again, and what were considered acts of rebellion against his former manager have now moved firmly into qualities that cannot be tolerated at a club of Manchester United's stature.
Gary Neville's rant yesterday after the defeat subtly hinted at the fact that certain players have to be shoved out of the club if United are to become a force to be feared once again, and there is no doubt that Paul Pogba is one of them.
That is the same criticism that the fans have been cying over for a long time. For all his talent, there is not a sign of consistency about Pogba. For all his flamboyancy, his work rate seriously lets him down. When he doesn't produce results, his flaws are lit up for all the world to see.
It is one thing if he doesn't produce stuff on the field but another matter to be consistently annoyed with the energy he puts into the field. For all his failings, Arsenal fans appreciate Granit Xhaka. For all his non-lethal play, Barcelona fans understand the role of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. Hell, Newcastle fans will never let anyone pick on Jonjo Shelvey for that matter. But Pogba has been diametrically opposed to that notion as well.
A common topic during the previous management crisis at United was the fact that no player was bigger than the club, and the same issues are popping up once more. Last time, Pogba had the last laugh because he had the fans on his side and he was more "Manchester United" than Mourinho.
This time, they will not be the same. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, if nothing else, is a darling of the masses, a man adored by Sir Alex Ferguson and possessing the United DNA as much as anyone else who has donned the jersey. Going up against him, Pogba will not have the same advantages, not by a long shot.
As long as he listens to his manager and sticks to his role and puts it in just enough work to justify the pay cheque he takes home at the end of the day, the Frenchman can thrive at the club even if the others around him fall. But the moment he stops, the moment he decides to take the same route once again, chances are he is gone.
If the club decides to stand behind the Norwegian then, and it is imperative that they do, that should be it for the Paul Pogba show.