Paul Pogba needs room to grow, not constant criticism, at Manchester United

The world's most expensive footballer is 23-years-old and far from the finished article. It is only fair that his critics remember that

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The Independent Football

When Paul Pogba walked back into the Manchester United dressing room for the first time since returning, the feeling from those at the club was that it was like “he had never been away”.

A hugely popular and charismatic character, he instantly radiated the kind of confidence that allows him to play those divine passes that so illuminate games and have so often set up Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The flipside is that Pogba left Old Trafford as a kid and, while he has obviously grown up in the meantime, there remains an immaturity to his game.

He is far from the finished article, as best shown by his positional ill-discipline, and by his regular combinations of the impressive with the imprecise; the fantastic with the frustrating. He still just offers highlights rather than full games. He isn't fully influencing them.

Those kind of contrasts would be completely understandable for most 23-year-old footballers, especially midfielders, since it is the position that arguably requires a greater understanding of the game than any other. That only comes with experience. It was an understanding still someway beyond many of the bona fide midfield stars Pogba has been compared to when they were 23.

At that age, Frank Lampard had just gone to Chelsea, but still wasn’t anywhere near the goalscoring force he would become. Steven Gerrard was already scoring blockbusters and spraying passes, but there were rough edges to his game. Even Xavi, meanwhile, was still just a solid midfielder keeping Barcelona moving but one who was being talked of as potentially leaving Camp Nou.

The big difference, of course, is that none of them had just changed clubs for the biggest transfer fee ever paid. It is not Pogba’s fault he went for so much money, but it obviously creates certain expectations; puts a harsher light on him. And the one thing you could very positively say about the 23-year-old is that he doesn’t hide from that light. He willingly tries to step up. He tries to do different things.

Even the 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth at the weekend was a case in point. Pogba might have been responsible for two moments that killed United attacks towards the end of the game - such as one bad pass on the edge of the box just when a goal seemed on, and at least one mis-hit - but he was also the player most likely to breathe life into the side’s play; to create. That is to be commended and, given his obvious technical ability, it will gradually bring consistency over time. It also brings to mind Rio Ferdinand’s words about the type of passes Manchester United players should try.

“At first I made the mistake of playing cautiously, making sure I didn’t make a mistake,” the former centre-half said in his autobiography. “In training one time, I passed an easy square ball to Gary Neville and Roy Keane just ripped into me. He said: ‘Listen; stop fucking playing safe, play the ball forward, you’re not at fucking West Ham or Leeds now.' ... He was right: we were there to win, not coast. You’ve got to take risks if you’re going to win.”

Pogba certainly doesn’t coast, but one issue so far with him is that he does roam, with that made all the worse by the fact it sometimes looks like he doesn’t know exactly where to go. It can create imbalances in the United midfield when he is not getting to drive the game, and also fosters questions as to whether someone so off-the-cuff is really a Jose Mourinho player. The Portuguese has wanted Pogba for a long time, however, going back to his last summer at Chelsea.

Pogba's second-half display in the draw with Bournemouth was roundly criticised (Getty)

It certainly seems clear that Pogba can't yet play in a two, unless he has the right partner like Ander Herrera beside him. Many who know the French star well from his time in Italy, though, say he really needs a more specific role. That was how he revelled at Juventus, because there were such clear parameters to his game. His very placing in the team knocked the edges of it.

It has not been like that with United, and it is in fact surprising that a manager as defensively structured as Mourinho has allowed a midfield player such freedom. It often feels like Pogba’s instructions are just to float and cause damage where he can.

Perhaps some of this is down to a trait of Mourinho’s management. He has always been so organised in defence, but much less co-ordinated in attack. His philosophy going forward has genuinely been to let talented players do their own thing. And there is a real sense of that from United’s play.

It still feels as if their attacking game is dependent on talented individuals stepping up, rather than a deeper co-ordination. As one high-ranking continental executive quipped, “United are like a less athletic, less intelligent and less talented version of Real Madrid”. And, had Pogba joined them, he would have Luka Modric alongside him and Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to feed the ball to with those fine passes. That would make a difference. It was Barcelona who the 23-year-old really wanted to go to for so long, but their ready-to-burst wage structure simply wouldn’t allow it.

Jose Mourinho is a long-time admirer of Pogba and will give him every chance to succeed (Getty)

This is by no means to say Pogba isn’t happy. Sources say he “loves it” at United, and the club “loves him”, especially the commercial department. Pogba has been an immense success for them, willingly plays up to that side of the game through his social media activity, and brings in a lot of money for the club.

You wonder, however, could he still do with the influence of some of the earthier football figures that stood in such contrast to that commercialism; that he could do with one of United’s old heads like Keane, or Ryan Giggs or Ferdinand to rein him; to condition a discipline.

Pogba does need a full performance befitting of his talent and price tag too. That is probably the most underwhelming aspect of his spell so far, amid what have actually been decent-to-good performances. He hasn’t had that statement performance; that big game that really announces him; that really banishes the questions. Pogba has so far only dabbed at such matches with nice moves - pun partially intended - rather than fully driving them. Maybe Chelsea in the FA Cup on Monday could be that performance. It would also come in the same week he turns 24 - to really come of age; to make that stride forward.