Paul Pogba Must Be Protected Like The Great Barrier Reef
Get the best email in soccer.
There was a strange moment in the EFL Cup fourth round match between Manchester United and Manchester City during the half-time break. The first half had passed largely without incident save for a Kelechi Iheanacho header that the young Nigerian got completely wrong. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a wretched opening 45 minutes, but the half-time punditry, as it so often does this season, gradually shifted to Paul Pogba.
During the commercial intermission, we were treated to this beautiful Adidas commercial concerning the world’s most expensive player:
Returning to the Sky Sports studio, Jamie Carragher berated Pogba for his turns and flicks, asking in earnest if he was incapable of simply moving the ball quickly and efficiently through the midfield.
Pogba was limited to only 33 first half touches and a few of those touches had needlessly given away possession for United. One attempt at an overthought turn resulted in the defender easily reading his intentions and stripping him of the ball. Another move on the touchline would’ve beaten his initial marker, but, unfortunately for Pogba, the defensive cover behind him easily mopped up.
In essence, the Adidas commercial and Carragher’s criticism of the midfielder summarize Pogba’s first three months at United. He’s been guilty of doing too much, but he’s also the only midfielder whose true game is accurately depicted in flamboyant advertising.
Players like Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos are undeniably brilliant, but only Pogba actually plays like he’s jumped out of the pages of a comic book, an otherworldly combination of size, strength, athleticism, skill and creativity.
But the tricks, flicks and surging runs just aren’t coming off right now. Is it his position? Is it the system? Is he still struggling without having had a proper preseason?
For Jose Mourinho, the explanation is simple: “The problem is, in my opinion, somebody that comes from a different style of football and needs this time to be at his best level in football that is really difficult to play, especially for midfield players. I think it is really difficult to play or adapt from different realities, but he is a phenomenal player.”
Mourinho is trying to spark Pogba into form. After matches against Liverpool, Fenerbahce, Chelsea and now City, Pogba has logged 345 minutes in 10 days.
The reality is that Pogba’s form for Manchester United isn’t any more or less scintillating than what it was at Juventus this time last year.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) October 24, 2016
According to WhoScored, Pogba has played more accurate through balls (5) than any other player in the PL this year, including both David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne (4).
But the criticism of Pogba rings louder than ever. The price tag remains an ever-present stick with which to beat him with, and, on the whole, United’s midfield remains a confounding mystery. Today, a strong pairing of Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick didn’t really outclass City’s second string of Fernando, Aleix Garcia and Nolito.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) October 26, 2016
There’s a sharpness missing in Pogba’s game, but there’s also a cavalier approach that will be punished more often in this United side than it was with Juventus. He’s going to be a targeted man from now until May, and he’ll undoubtedly need to shoulder even more burden if United are to climb from their current position of seventh.
It sounds almost absurd to hear rumors linking United with players like Luka Modric, Kroos or Danny Drinkwater after investing so heavily in that area, but to continue to enjoy the skill set of Pogba without having to watch with horror as he’s transformed into a one-two touch controlling midfielder, that’s just the sort of player the Red Devils will need to find.
Follow me on Twitter: @ConmanFleming