Paul Pogba’s season keeps hitting the woodwork. The Manchester United man has struck the bar or post eight times in the Premier League, more than any other player, and so the metaphor feels like an obvious one — his first year back at Old Trafford often seems mere frustrating inches from being so much better.
Frank Lampard recently suggested Pogba could be a £90 million problem, in the sense he is not being played in his best position, and is therefore struggling to be effective. Pogba could argue, given the above statistic, that fortune has not fallen his way, yet that would only be half true.
As has been well-documented, Pogba has not yet hit the heights that he is expected to, leading several to believe he may not quite have it in him to be a truly dominant player. His year so far has been an odd mix of startling brilliance, apparent disinterest — in a defensive sense, at least — and visible anxiety. Often those characteristics have been present in the very same performance.
In many ways, it is difficult not to root for him. At a time when the far-Right is rising all over Europe, the most expensive player in the world is a black Muslim, who has built a career through determination and no little bravery — most notably, perhaps, in his decision to leave Manchester United to forge a career at Juventus. He is an inspiration to millions, merely because of who he is.
Yet this is the thing with Pogba. So much of the expectation around him is what he symbolises, which is why his marketing appeal is so broad. He is likeable, stylish and photogenic. You can imagine him being equally comfortable playing football in the street and at the front row in a rave. Like his friend Stormzy, the grime artist currently conquering all before him, he is seen as someone to whom the keys to the world have been thrown — yet, unlike Stormzy, he seems currently unsure as to how he should drive forward.
Of course, he is a player of exceptional gifts — that will never be in dispute. His accuracy of his long passing puts him in a select category alongside Paul Scholes, Ruud Gullit, Xabi Alonso and Glenn Hoddle. His feet are quicker than those of most centre-forwards. He has a shot of fearsome power, as many aching crossbars can tell you. But at present, when it matters most, he is forcing his game — to its significant detriment.
We should not be revisionist about this. Pogba has always been a player in a hurry — last season, he took more attempts at goal, some 124, than any other midfielder in Europe’s five major leagues. This season, he is on target to end up at around that total. The unfortunate thing is that his performances this season have followed a pattern — which is his form seems to rise steadily in quality, until he comes to a match where the stage is set for him to prove himself.
This happened against Liverpool in the Premier League and Southampton in the League Cup final. Both times he began the game brightly, both times he went close with a scoring chance where a goal could have settled his nerves, and both times his confidence then seemed to crumble. It is also notable that, in those games, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goals came to the rescue — the late equaliser against Liverpool and the late winner against Southampton spared him greater scrutiny than was already at his door.
The next few games are therefore intriguing. Pogba will, at some point in the years to come, become the leader of this team, and in Ibrahimovic’s absence through suspension he has the chance to assume that mantle, albeit temporarily. He is an interesting character, in that for someone so flamboyant in manner he does not seem to enjoy the limelight all that much. The sight of him wrestling with Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson in the Premier League was a sign of a man who sensed, more than a little desperately, that his chance to impress in that particular match was quickly slipping away.
His playing style, as it stands, needs some refinement, and probably more structure. Steven Gerrard, a similarly free attacking spirit, had two defensive midfielders behind him at his peak — Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano — and so it appears that Pogba will need similar reinforcements in the summer to be at his best.
He is probably already seeking out the advice of Patrice Evra, another United player whose start at the club was extremely difficult, given that Evra went on to become one of the finest full-backs to grace Old Trafford.
And it is not as if it has all been bleak, far from it — one of the main reasons that United have gone so long unbeaten in the league is that Pogba, during a two-month stretch or so, has been mostly sublime.
What we are seeing right now are Pogba’s very public growing pains — and there will surely come a time when those shots begin to dip just beneath the crossbar, or swerve just inside the post.
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