Manchester United supporters had finished rejoicing following an unlikely comeback against their city rivals, having stalled Pep Guardiola and his side’s procession to the league title after a first-half of footballing dominance. One question, however, remained on their lips, concerning the performance of Paul Pogba.
Was his superb, controlling display at the Etihad simply a flash in the pan? Or did it in fact signal the start of the talented Frenchman’s ascent into becoming one of the Premier League’s greatest ever midfielders?
Manchester City’s need to triumph over their bitter rivals to clinch the title meant that the derby promised special performances. The high stakes meant the blue half of Manchester showcased elegant, free-flowing attacking from the first minute; they were relentless until the half-time interval allowed United to reassemble their battered and bruised ranks. Jose Mourinho’s side were humiliated throughout the first half, but when the teams re-emerged after the interval, there was a tangible difference in the United players, seemingly pioneered by Pogba himself.
In that second half, Pogba could be seen berating his teammates as United harried for a greater share of possession. He single-handedly prevented Guardiola’s outfit from strolling to the pinnacle of England’s top flight against their most hated adversaries. On that day, under the evening light on the wrong side of Manchester, Pogba stood up to be counted. In a period of 50 minutes, he shed himself of all the doubters, and dragged United back into the game.
The hulking Frenchman’s quick-fire double helped inject sheer momentum into the United ranks, something that Chris Smalling swooped upon as he stabbed home the eventual winner. All the links that precariously conjoined him with Pep Guardiola’s ranks after his agent’s apparent interactions with the Manchester City manager meant nothing.
But as the transfer talk dissipated, and United’s comeback had been thoroughly picked apart and analysed, there still remained worries over the Red Devils’ superstar Frenchman. There can be no doubting Pogba possesses the talent needed to cement his place in the beautiful game’s history books. But what can’t be disputed is how frustratingly little he shows these abilities. Countless games this season, and last, have passed Pogba by.
These poor patches of form have led to tensions between player and manager, with Jose Mourinho not best known for his leniency towards those who are underperforming. Pogba has been dropped for clashes against Huddersfield and the awful Champions League defeat to Sevilla in March, with youngster Scott McTominay occasionally favoured. The fact that Pogba has previously been ousted by the Scot effectively demonstrates just how poor he has been; questionable decision-making on the ball and apparent unwillingness to defensively support his teammates have, understandably, frustrated United supporters.
His lapse performances in a red jersey were especially jarring considering the impact he had throughout his time at Juventus. Pogba joined the Old Lady in 2012, as a 19-year-old, when Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was in charge. After being slowly embedded into the Italian side, Pogba became an integral figure as part of a midfield three. Juventus clinched the league title after surpassing the 100-point mark, and the Frenchman slowly became one of Conte’s trusted generals.
Pogba thrived on the left side of the midfield trio, typically supported by Andrea Pirlo and one other. He clinched the Golden Boy award in 2013 – an accolade that names the best young player in Europe. His development continued, with Juventus’ system rarely changing under their Italian manager. This familiarity week in week out provided Pogba with much-needed freedom to foray forward, along with Arturo Vidal; the Frenchman provided seven goals and the same amount of assists in the 2013/14 season. His arrival in Turin appeared to accelerate his growth as a player. Pogba’s importance in Juventus’ side saw many of Europe’s largest clubs run their longing gaze over the player.
Of course, Pogba did still sometimes show lapses in maturity whilst in Italy. One notable example saw him dropped for two matches in 2012 after turning up late to training. He was also admonished by Conte for a poor display against Sampdoria two years later, despite scoring a superb goal. However, under the shrewd leadership of the Italian tactician, Pogba became ready for his next big move. This, of course, eventually transpired to be a return to Old Trafford.
However, for every poor display, Pogba has also demonstrated just how effective he can be in forward positions. The 25-year-old connects beautifully with those around him when he is at the height of his powers. He also possesses a goal-scoring threat with his towering stature and keen eye for a long-range strike. What holds him back from greatness is his inconsistency, something that has disrupted the careers of many notoriously talented players. Provided this can be overcome, Pogba is sure to be a staple figure in United’s midfield for the foreseeable future.
The Frenchman is also gradually becoming crucial for his country’s national team. With nine goals in 51 appearances, Pogba is one of the first names on the team-sheet, having repeatedly demonstrated his worth to Didier Deschamps. Pogba has previously been named as the 2014 World Cup’s Best Young Player, having only made his debut the previous year, and also enjoyed a key contribution in France’s run to the Euro 2016 final. In front of the watching eyes and expectations of millions, Pogba thrived in the limelight. After a poor start to the tournament, the Frenchman shone in an advanced role against both Iceland and Germany. Despite the eventual defeat to Portugal, Pogba once again showed his notable growth since departing Manchester United for Turin.
Pogba’s positive attitude towards his development, both on and off the football field, is promising. Since arriving at Old Trafford, quashed slightly by a world record fee, the Frenchman’s maturity has been evident. His respectable work for several charities has been well-documented, and his determination to help eradicate racism out of the sport is more than admirable.
All of the aforementioned provides Paul Pogba with the opportunity many can only dream of – the chance to solidify himself as a Manchester United great, and represent his country on the largest of all stages. However, this is something that can easily be squandered and regretted forever; although many now expect, and hope, that the Frenchman will go and become one of the beautiful game’s finest midfielders.