With a goal and an assist, Paul Pogba played a key role in Manchester United’s win vs. Everton on Sunday. The 25-year-old is his club’s leading scorer this season and is just months off helping France win the World Cup.
But is Pogba doing enough? In his third season since returning to Old Trafford following a successful spell with Juventus in Italy, he continues to trigger debate among fans and pundits alike.
“Pogba is doing pretty well at Manchester United,” says Brian McClair, who scored 127 goals in 471 games for the club and was working as director of its youth academy when Pogba was signed in 2009. “There is a bit too much social media nonsense, which is nothing to do with playing football, but Pogba has scored some important goals and played well in important games.”
Given that United paid a world record £89.3 million for Pogba in 2016, a great deal was expected. While he has had some fine moments, scoring in a European final and netting twice at Manchester City, he has not reached the consistent levels of the very best in the game.
“World-class players grab the main events, the semifinals and finals for club and country, the biggest league games,” McClair says. “France won the World Cup this year, but I don’t know how many people would say that one particular player grabbed the whole thing. Pele grabbed World Cups, Garrincha and [Diego] Maradona too.
“[Michel] Platini grabbed European championships,” he continues. “Real Madrid, with players like Cristiano Ronaldo, [Luka] Modric and Sergio Ramos, grab the most important games when it really matters. They change games when things are going against you. Lionel Messi does the same. Cristiano did it when he was at Manchester United. He scored goals against Porto away in the Champions League quarterfinals when Porto had drawn the first leg in Manchester.”
Pogba can dip in and out of games, but McClair thinks the greatest players can be indulged because of the magical moments they bring.
“These game-changers are allowed to wander around the pitch and not look particularly interested, but they produce in the biggest matches,” McClair says. “Eric Cantona did that for Manchester United. He made the difference, he did things nobody else could do. He was respectful of the players he was playing with and recognised that they were trying to help him as he could help them. There’s that moment in the ‘Looking for Eric’ film where he says his greatest moment wasn’t a goal, but a pass to Denis Irwin which led to a goal.”
Cantona was not a world beater every week, but he provided so many sublime moments that he not only became a standard bearer for French players who followed him to Old Trafford — including Pogba and Patrice Evra — but a hero to United fans. Pogba is yet to come close to that status, though he is not playing in a team as good as that which Cantona led in the mid-1990s.
“A top Manchester United player needs to be at least 7/10 every game,” McClair says. “And in the proper big games you need to make some 10/10 appearances. You can only do that if you have good enough players around you. I’ve mentioned Silva, but City have got better players than United.”
McClair recalls the qualities Pogba brought with him to the club:
“He was big, strong, quick and athletic. He wasn’t and isn’t a Patrick Vieira-type dominant midfielder like some have suggested; he’s more of a Lionel Messi-type player. That might sound daft, but he’s a player who can find a pass, beat someone, shoot and score.
“He has fantastic skills, but for him to have the best opportunity of success at Old Trafford, Pogba needs to be playing in the final third of the pitch as much as possible, whether that’s him on the ball, running into positions or shooting. That has been more evident in the last couple of games where he’s got into different positions and come close to scoring.”
Pogba is United’s joint top scorer with five goals, though three of them have been penalties, and another — last Sunday vs. Everton — was a tap-in after his spot kick was saved. Much has been made of his tiptoeing approach to the ball, but McClair is not disapproving of the unique approach: “Paul’s prancing horse run-up before a penalty is not for me, but it doesn’t matter if he’s successful.”
Aside from his on-field ability, Pogba has a personality to which McClair warmed.
“He’s a cracking lad,” he says. “He has a very good sense of humour, which is maybe one of the reasons why he gets caught out a few times on social media, like when he had a laugh at England’s expense by singing ‘It’s Coming Home’ before jokingly apologising.”
Pogba has also been linked with wanting a move — most often to Barcelona — but McClair thinks he should recognise what he has.
“The grass can always seem greener,” McClair says. “But it doesn’t matter if you are going to be a Man United player for a week or for 15 years, you will look back at the end of your career and Man United will have been the best club that you’ve ever played for.”