As soon as Paul Pogba became the world’s most expensive footballer the spotlight on his performances was always going to be intense and unforgiving. Fans often use fees as a stick to beat opposition players with and the vast sum paid to Juventus was an open goal for those with an agenda. For attacking players the only measures which seems to be accepted are goals and assists and yet the Frenchman was never going to match the output of other high figure purchases like Gareth Bale, Louis Suarez or Neymar. As an orthodox midfielder opportunity in that regard simply does not knock as often as it does for a forward and clinical finishing is not one of his natural strengths. The value of Pogba was always likely to be his creative contributions and work transitioning the ball from defence to attack, either through impressive dribbling or pinpoint passing. He has the attributes to be the complete modern creative midfielder, combining athleticism, dribbling ability, vision and a great passing range.
Pogba has not been aided in how he is assessed this season by two things. Firstly, the size of his fee was inflated both by the relative wealth of Juventus and by the commercial appeal he held for United. The near £90m sum made him the world’s most expensive player, but he is not the planet’s most accomplished footballer. At 23 he had much to learn but huge potential and the fee reflected the latter. The commercial nonsense which surrounded the negotiations demonstrated his enormous financial appeal and United, lacking a contemporary icon aside from the newly signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, identified the high revenues he could generate. Pogba’s fee therefore reflected his value as an asset, not just a footballer, but assessment of his performances rarely reflects that. To knock him is simply too easy.
The debate was reopened this week after football statistics and ranking website @WhoScored published their European team of the season so far, which contained Pogba in midfield. Their model is statistically driven and is not perfect, but a look at its Premier League top ten players demonstrates its ability to differentiate the wheat from the chaff. Pogba sits third in England’s domestic league. Looking through replies to the website’s tweet on the matter uncovered a sea of scorn, from opposition fans but also respected journalists. As someone who has watched United all season I can understand some of the confusion, but it is undeniable that for long periods of the campaign he and Ibrahimovic have dragged this side along on their coat tails. Whilst the player’s goals and assists are down slightly on his most recent Juventus seasons his creative output has actually increased. His key passes per game have rocketed from 1.5 to 2 and he is losing the ball far less than he did in Italy despite taking more chances in the final third. What’s more, had United’s forwards finished a respectable number of the chances created this season his assists total would be at the very least doubled. Now playing in a far weaker team than the Juventus side that he left, Pogba has taken on far more responsibility in an attacking sense and has felt a previously absent imperative to force matters when a game is not going his side’s way. At times he has tried too hard in that regard, rather than playing his natural game, something which has impacted negatively on some performances. In addition, he has been asked to play in a number of roles, from holding midfielder to number ten, as opposed to his favoured position on the left of a midfield three.
It is undeniable, however, that Pogba needs to improve, but that is to be expected. During a purple patch lasting from October to mid-February he was genuinely excellent, but his erratic form prior to that point reflected the fact that he had had no pre-season and was carrying the burden of a huge transfer fee and sky high expectations on his back. Regardless, most disappointingly he has struggled to impact the biggest games, and it those performances which his critics are most likely to have watched. With only those contributions in mind it is fair to say that the player has under-performed, but United fans view his overall impact this season and few will be hugely disappointed.
In the last month it is undeniable that Pogba’s performances have fallen off a cliff. But what did we expect? Without a pre-season he has played twice a week almost all season, used relentlessly by Mourinho in recognition of the fact that United’s struggles have made every game vitally important and that without him creative output falls enormously. With the team involved in four competitions coming into 2017 and, in particular, having gone deep into the remorseless Europa League, the number of games played in that period dwarfs the totals of immediate domestic rivals. He played seven months without a chance to breath or relax and in the weeks preceding the muscle injury he suffered in the first leg of the Europa League tie against Rostov Pogba simply looked exhausted. The injury itself was almost inevitable.
And yet it could be argued that it came at the perfect time. With his body creaking and his form plummeting Pogba would have been expected to join the France squad during this international window, potentially playing two more games before returning to a United side that faces a remarkable nine games in the month of April. With Champions League qualification looking a long shot through the Premier League, he will also be needed for the Europa League run-in as Mourinho chases a trophy which would bring an alternative path into the competition. As things stood before the injury it appeared unlikely that Pogba had enough left in the tank to prove a decisive influence in the remaining two months of the season.
Instead he has had more than a fortnight’s rest as his injury heals. It is not yet clear if he will be fit enough to face West Brom at Old Trafford this coming weekend, another huge opportunity for United to make up ground on those above them, or the midweek home game against Everton, but when he does return we should see a somewhat revitalised presence. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has also enjoyed a similar break after his suspension for elbowing Tyrone Mings in the Premier League game against Bournemouth at Old Trafford, and Mourinho will hope that the return of his two most influential players will galvanise his side during the relentless run-in. United fans value Pogba’s contribution this season and recognise the absurdity of measuring him solely in comparison to his transfer fee. Whilst @whoscored’s statistical scoring system may have been a tad generous for the Frenchman this season, it recognises a contribution not simply defined by the arbitrary measures of goals and assists. There is no doubt that Pogba can and must improve, but he is already vitally important to the functioning of this United side and his almost inevitable injury simply could not have come at a better time for the player, his manager and his team, as they push for the Champions League qualification which would make player acquisition this coming summer so much easier and would return the club to the elite competition that their history and budget demands. The critics may snipe, but few United fans would demand their money back for Paul Pogba.