Premier League: Can Manchester United afford to sell Paul Pogba?
The transfer saga of the summer looks set to be Paul Pogba and his imminent departure from Old Trafford. The player recently said it may be time for a new challenge, which has alerted Real Madrid and Juventus executives bidding to bring in the French playmaker.
Much has been made of Pogba’s significance to off-field metrics such as shirt sale revenue and social media reach. But on the pitch, can Manchester United afford to sell Paul Pogba?
For most of his time in Manchester Pogba has been under intense scrutiny from pundits and fans alike, owing to his then-record transfer fee, outrageous hairstyles, and his love of social media.
While Pogba was a standout at the 2018 World Cup, inspiring and motivating his teammates to glory in Russia, his return to club football didn’t hit the same heights. A falling out with then manager Jose Mourinho led to Pogba’s benching, before the arrival of new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw an upturn in form.
Most people would say Pogba produced an underwhelming performance in the 2018-19 season. But how does he stack up against Europe’s top midfielders?
Despite going all the way to the World Cup final, Pogba still played in 61 matches in the 2018-19 season, just one appearance shy of the 62 made by Luka Modric of Real Madrid. Although he played one fewer match, Pogba played 412 more minutes than the Croatian maestro, amassing 4551 minutes on the pitch.
Compare this to just 40 appearances and 1765 minutes from Kevin de Bruyne or 48 appearances from Dele Alli, two players who made it to the semi-final stage in Russia. Pogba’s fitness gave him more opportunities to contribute on the pitch and influence results.
Pogba was often asked to play a more defensive role under Mourinho, which is a style of play that doesn’t suit his skillset, and saw his chances of scoring being restricted. When Solskjaer unshackled the midfielder from his defensive burden, Pogba responded by scoring goals at will.
Pogba averaged 2.5 shots per game and scored 17 goals in 2018-19. Only Marco Reus of Borussia Dortmund scored more for a player of a similar position, netting 26 times in arguably an easier league and for a team without an out and out striker.
In the Premier League, only Christian Eriksen came close, scoring 15 times.
Pogba had 10 assists in the season, a figure matched by David Silva, Marco Reus and Luka Modric (9 assists). However, he was well behind the 17 assists of Christian Eriksen.
While Pogba could argue that he was paired with the wasteful and goal-shy Romelu Lukaku for much of the season, while Eriksen was supplying passes to Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, the numbers don’t lie. Part of being a leader on the pitch is to help make your teammates perform to a higher standard.
Pass accuracy percentage
Pogba has often been criticised for being wasteful, going for the spectacular when the simple would suffice, and it is a criticism that is borne out by the numbers.
While Miralem Pjanic led the way for midfielders in Europe with a pass accuracy percentage of 90.3%, Pogba was some way back, connecting on only 83% of passes.
Paulo Dybala (89.3%), Isco (88.9%), Luka Modric (88.3%) and James Rodriguez (87%) are all well ahead of the Frenchman in terms of passes completed, something fans at Old Trafford would like to see an improvement on should the club refuse to sell the midfielder.
It doesn’t get much better in terms of key passes per game for Pogba, who averages 1.6 per game, while across town Kevin de Bruyne averages 2.4 per game.
In fact De Bruyne, Pjanic, Rodriguez, David Silva and Eriksen all average over two key passes per game.
While De Bruyne averages 2.4 key passes per game, he does so while averaging 41.3 passes per game. For his part, Pogba amasses 57.5 passes per game, yet appears to be more wasteful with his possession.
This wastefulness is also shown in the Frenchman’s five long-balls per game (De Bruyne averages 2.2) and 1.4 shots per game from outside the box.
While many have questioned whether or not Pogba cares or has his heart in Manchester, his superior work rate cannot be disputed. With an average of 11.15 km run per match, Pogba runs more than any player in a similar position.
Pogba’s height and languid running style may contribute to the belief that he looks disinterested. However, he cannot be expected to change how he runs to suit commentators and fans.
While his height may make it appear he is not covering much ground, the fact that Pogba wins 1.8 aerial challenges per match, a full percentage point above his closest rival Dele Alli (0.8 per match), makes it clear that Pogba is the focal point of balls played in the air, and he isn’t afraid to go head to head with defenders.
What does the future hold?
At the 2018 World Cup Pogba looked hungry, motivated and driven to win. He was also surrounded by a support cast that included Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and a host of other world-class talents.
While he didn’t bring the same spark to Manchester United in the 2018-19 season, and has made several comments in the media that have not endeared him to fans, it can be argued that the players at Old Trafford are not even close to those of the French national team.
However, when you are signed for a world-record amount and are paid over $29 million US dollars per year, then like it or not the expectation is that you will lead by example and make the players around you better.
While Pogba can be wasteful, going for the sublime rather than the simple, he makes Manchester United a better team going forward. Like his much-loved compatriot Eric Cantona, he has the potential to create a work of footballing art on his day, turning a match with a moment of brilliance, and is not a player who should be sold without careful consideration.
Current manager Solskjaer has rekindled several Sir Alex Ferguson traditions, such as playing with a cavalier attitude going forward and requiring players to wear their club suit to travel to matches. But if Pogba does indeed leave this transfer window, it might be another trait that the Norwegian boss would need to borrow from his mentor's tool kit – extracting the maximum amount of pride, passion and end product out of the players already at his disposal.