Pogbageddon

After Vieri, Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Bale… Here’s the current pressure-bearer.

89 million pounds. Twenty years ago, such amount of money for a single footballer was unthinkable. Ten years ago, we could perhaps consider that fee for the absolute best of the best in the world. Today, when 30 million gives you Moussa Sissoko and 50 million equals John Stones, the 89-million man is a player who’s merely aspiring, merely balancing on the edge of being world-class. And his name is John Ce… Paul Pogba. Eight months into his first, comeback season at Manchester United, it’s time to look at the ups and downs of it:

Mockingly dubbed by some as a “highlight-reel player”, Pogba indeed had few performances worthy of YouTube compilations. His inconsistency was – and still is – a problem; but every time he hits the form, he tends to grow and grow as the game progresses, up to the point when he becomes nearly impossible to stop. A hard-fought, away win at Crystal Palace in December has been a prime example:

Palace 1-2 United; Pogba is the #6 – right in the heart of the game.

With 77 passes completed and 121 touches (39 more than the most involved Palace player, Yohan Cabaye), Pogba had an exemplary performance, finishing the game with a goal and a critical, match-winning assist to Ibrahimović. Curiously enough, he accomplished all that while being a part of three-man midfield, with Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera having his back. This further reinforced the old claims that the most expensive player in the world does best when the central formation contains two more players ready to both aid him going forward and to fix his errors.

Does it mean that Pogba is a luxury player not just in terms of money spent, but also in terms of tactical commitment he requires to perform well? Probably not – but, at the age of 23, he’s not a football mastermind (yet?) and he’ll require lots of patience and training to bring out the best qualities in formations like 4-2-3-1 (which his manager prefers) or 3-4-3 (which Mourinho experimented with during the winning, 3-1 trip to Middlesbrough). As of today, his pet system is Juventus’ 4-3-3 – anything else hinders the man’s game to a certain degree.

Pobga against City (H), Liverpool (A), Chelsea (A), Arsenal (H), Spurs (H) and Liverpool (H).

The chart above is quite devastating for Pogba. Despite playing 90 minutes in each of the six, big Premier League games so far, he failed to score a single goal and to provide a single assist. Moreover, only two of his 11 shots have hit the target – both fired in a 1-0 win over Spurs. Against top-shelf opposition, Pogba has played only four key passes, conceding 14 fouls and losing the ball 15 times. That’s a shocking contribution from a player, who, according to several ads, was supposed to become the creative force for Manchester United.

On the other hand, Pogba’s defensive involvement was rather encouraging. He’s been using his 191 cm worth of height properly, winning 24 aerial duels – on average four per each big game he entered. This, combined with 12 dribbles and 13 tackles won suggests that the Frenchman is an asset when it comes to hand-to-hand combat in the middle of the park. In fact, his combination with Ander Herrera has been the most defensively efficient midfield pairing at the EPL top thus far. But was it the point of spending 89 million on him?

All in all, though, the impression here is rather negative. Pogba failed to boss the midfield against the likes of Fernandinho and Jordan Henderson. He’s also conceded a penalty against Liverpool and utterly disappointed MU fans by not tracking back N’Golo Kante, when his compatriot was through to score the fourth goal for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. A tad more solid displays against Spurs and Arsenal haven’t really improved the landscape – and if PP doesn’t shine in few remaining “super Sundays”, his record here will be underwhelming.

Passing and creativity comparison; Pogba clearly in the lead. (via Squawka

There’s no doubt about it: in terms of providing teammates with the ball, especially while building up the attacks, few Premier League players can compete with Pogba. The average of 1.88 key passes per 90 minutes gives him a vast edge over his Liverpool (Wijnaldum), Spurs (Dembélé), Man City (Fernandinho) and Chelsea (Matić) counterparts. The same players are also inferior in terms of creating chances (2 per game for Pogba; between 0.91 and 1.16 for everyone else) and the number of successful passes (only Pogba and Fernandinho are exceeding 60 per game, with the Frenchman still being ahead).

At the same time, the stats in which 100 million lad does not win by a huge margin might be dropping a hint about what’s wrong with United’s play. For Pogba does not lead the goals or assists chart in this comparison (topped by Wijnaldum and Matić, respectively) and boasts the lowest pass completion ratio here (85%). So perhaps it’s not all about him, but about his teammates being wasteful with what he’s providing and/or not being insightful enough to pick up the ball in a place Paul is addressing it to. If this issue, one may speculate that it should get resolved over time, as the lads start blending together a bit more.

“Everybody knows we are the unluckiest team in the Premier League. We should have six points more and that would put us in the top four, as it is we have a lot more work to do.” Those words have been uttered by José Mourinho after a 1-1 draw with Arsenal – but they could’ve been as well spoken by Pogba and his attempts at scoring goals. At 84 attempts, he’s more frequent ball striker than top-scoring forward Romelu Lukaku (21 goals from 80 shots) and the current Golden Boot runner-up, Harry Kane (19 goals, 69 shots). His returns? One header against Leicester; one screamer at Swansea; one tap-in at Selhurst Park and one header against Middlesbrough. That’s essentially it.

PP’s finishing. So many wasted chances…

55 attempts without working the keeper. So far, only four Premier League players have more such shots this season: Christian Eriksen (67), Zlatan Ibrahimović (66), Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez (both 56). Those are three forwards and one attacking midfielder – footballers expected to take chances, even from difficult positions. On paper, Pogba’s task shouldn’t involve that – or at least, not to the current degree. However, with team being in desperate need of a winner and Zlatan, more often than not being heavily marked, United are in a frequent need of someone, capable to strike it from distance. Unfortunately, their new-old signing isn’t doing the best job and lacks good fortune too: he’s managed to hit woodwork 5 times already.

A year ago, similar issue has been haunting Coutinho. The combination of narrow attacking options for Liverpool, the players’ overconfidence and his managers’ leniency towards it resulted with way too many half-chances going wide or high in the air instead of being fleshed out with a pass. For United, the problem is quite similar and could potentially be solved by Juan Mata (who boast an excellent accuracy: 21 shots on target from 36 attempts!) or Henrikh Mkhitaryan (13 times on target from 28 strikes). On one condition: Pogba absolutely has to give them some of the balls he is so tempted to hit.

At 23, Paul Pogba is as good as a footballer can be without being a freak of nature (see: Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, etc.). He still has work to do. He’s still adapting. He’s still sometimes suffering from the shortcomings of a team around him. He’s failed to conquer his “debut” Premier League season, but everything is still ahead of him.

That’s about the player. And regarding the ridiculous fee paid for him? Well, the lad is young, has ridiculous marketing value, some potential still left in the tank, a terrific Serie A season behind him, experience at the highest level (one Champions League final already!) and, on the top of it, lots of previous knowledge about how Manchester United works as a footballing team. Combine those things into the times of transfer inflation, spice it up with a greedy agent, soak it in media buzz – and you’ll get the point of “89 million”.

Final Grade: 6.5/10; good, but not World-Record good.

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