Luka Modric doesn’t score. The current holder of the Ballon d’Or hasn’t scored more than three league goals in a season since his Tottenham days. He doesn’t make as many assists as you’d think, either: 39 in seven seasons at Real Madrid in all competitions. Modric is a brilliant player, but nobody expects him to go bombing into the area and getting on the end of crosses.
Kevin de Bruyne isn’t much of a tackler. There’s a famous clip from a Belgium training session at last summer’s World Cup when he piles into Adnan Januzaj with such reckless abandon that his team-mate literally balloons upwards before crumpling in a heap. De Bruyne is a fine presser of the ball, but when Manchester City get stretched, you’d much rather see Bernardo Silva or Raheem Sterling sprinting back to help.
You could go on. Thiago Alcantara occasionally gets muscled off the ball. Sergio Busquets has an almost allergic aversion to shooting. Toni Kroos is quite slow, and if you want him to win an aerial duel you would literally have to lift him off the ground, rugby-lineout-style. Blaise Matuidi doesn’t really do set-pieces. Paris Saint-Germain have scored 203 goals in Ligue 1 in the last two seasons, but Marco Verratti hasn’t scored any of them. Miralem Pjanic occasionally struggles in intense, high-paced games when he’s denied time on the ball. N’Golo Kante’s finishing is abysmal, and his final ball often lets him down.
These are, by common consent, some of the greatest central midfielders in the world. Some of them are often described as “complete midfielders”, but as the above demonstrates, none of them is without flaws or imperfections. And yet none is really defined by them, either. We don’t think Modric is any less great because he doesn’t knock in 30-yard screamers, and we don’t think Thiago is a defensive liability because he doesn’t pull off inch-perfect slide tackles on the edge of his penalty area.
Which brings us to Paul Pogba.
Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Chelsea on Sunday brought a relatively quiet end to another turbulent week in the Pogba universe. It was a week bookmarked with crushing defeats, characterised by rumour and slur and cryptic recrimination and a surprise appearance in the PFA team of the year, but one that ended with a fairly unremarkable performance in a fairly unremarkable game. And as ever in a Pogba performance, you could see whatever you wanted in it.
You could, for example, look at the four times Pogba was dispossessed, more than any other United player on the pitch. Or you could look at his three dribbles, as many as the rest of the United team put together. You could look at the way he simply stood stock still as Antonio Rudiger lined up a shot 25 yards out from which Marcos Alonso eventually scored. Or you could look at the way he spirited an opening out of nothing in the second half, squeezing in a cross from the left that a fitter Romelu Lukaku might have attacked.
Like the other midfielders above, Pogba isn’t perfect. His defensive positioning often lets him down. While he’s good at winning the ball in a one-on-one duel, the inefficiency of his tracking and marking means he doesn’t actually get into as many of those duels as you would expect for a player in his position. He’s occasionally prone to low-percentage shots from outside the area. His record in big games for United is mixed.
But against all this, he’s arguably a more complete midfielder than any in the elite game. How many of the players above can tackle or leap like Pogba? How many possess his agility or simple straight-line speed? How many can boast Pogba’s array of options for beating a man or getting out of a tight spot? And - perhaps most saliently of all - how many of the so-called great central midfielders in world football can match Pogba’s blunt numbers?
Let’s put this in perspective. The most maligned player in the history of the post-Ferguson Manchester United (with an honourable mention for Falcao) has 13 league goals this season. He’s their top scorer! From central midfield! And while that number has been boosted by penalties, he also happens to be their top assist provider, with nine. By any conventional measure of football, Pogba’s 2018-19 Manchester United season has been at least a qualified success.
The problem is that when you’re the most expensive player in the history of British football, you’re not judged by conventional measures.
“I wouldn't believe a word he says,” Roy Keane said on Sky Sports after the 2-0 defeat to Manchester City. “There's no meaning behind it. I don’t even think he believed what he was saying there. He's on about being a team-mate. Well, if you want to be a good team-mate you've got to run back. He is a big problem, no doubt about it.”
There’s quite a bit to unpack there. For Keane, Pogba’s problem isn’t simply bad football, but a sort of basic dishonesty. For Keane, when Pogba doesn’t track his man back, it’s not because of specific tactical instructions from his manager, or to preserve energy for attacks, or simply because following movement isn’t one of his natural skillsets. It’s a moral failing. A kind of fraud committed against his team-mates, manager and fans.
Undoubtedly, part of the reason for this is Pogba’s inimitable playing style. He’s often described as an ‘explosive’ player, but the thing about explosive players is that you need something to explode from. And the way Pogba runs - arms languidly at his sides, head cocked - has the curse of making him look lazy without actually being lazy. The way he abruptly leaps on the spot when an attack breaks down has the habit of looking petulant without necessarily being petulant.
But one of the other reasons Pogba attracts criticism really has very little to do with him at all. Most central midfielders, at every level at the game, have their role shaped for them. De Bruyne plays in the ‘interior’ role because you don’t want him scurrying around all over the place closing down breaks. Modric plays deeper because it gives him more time to play and you don’t need him scavenging in the penalty area. They have other, exceptional players around to do that for them.
Pogba isn’t surrounded by exceptional players. On Sunday, he was surrounded by Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku. With the possible exception of Rashford, you couldn’t argue that any of them belongs at a better club. And so United need Pogba to be everything for them: their Kroos, their Thiago, their Kante, their De Bruyne. He needs to pull off the outrageous, but not lose the ball while doing so. He needs to be their cutting edge in attack and cover every blade of grass in defence. He needs to be less selfish, but not at the expense of his goal tally. He needs to lead, but not make everything about himself.
Is it any wonder Pogba has failed to meet many of the expectations invested in him? The player so many at United want him to be: it doesn’t exist. Perhaps it did once, when football was a slower, less specialised sport, when it was possible for a single player to ‘run the game’, whatever that means. But what we understand as the modern central midfielder really encompasses a whole gamut of roles - playmaker, metronome, shuttler, scuffler, ball-winner, No10, false winger, creator, destroyer - that no one player can hope to embody on his own. It’s to Pogba’s immense credit that on his best days, he sometimes gets close.
When has Pogba been at his best in the last few years? It was with France last summer, when - surprise! - he was surrounded by gifted players, all with defined and complementary roles. Instead of Matic and Herrera covering for him, he had Matuidi and Kante. Instead of Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial to thread passes to, he had Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann. “Pogba can do everything,” coach Didier Deschamps admitted ahead of the tournament. “But he can’t do everything at the same time.”
This isn’t - or at least shouldn’t be - a revolutionary point. Equally, it should be blindingly obvious that players are to a large extent at the mercy of the team around them. And yet still many United fans - and some highly respected voices within the media - insist that Pogba must be sold if United are to realise their full potential, seemingly blind to the notion that perhaps the reason often Pogba looks bad is because often United are bad. And that the last time he played for someone good, they won the World Cup.
This, in itself, is a phenomenon with many origins. Partly it’s football’s curious blame culture, where triumphs are collective but failures individual. Partly it’s this country’s traditional fascination with the midfielder as one-man hurricane, and United’s own historical fortune in that department: Edwards, Robson, Keane. Partly it’s where United are as a club right now: marooned between a gilded past and an uncertain future, and in search of saviours who can bridge the two. Pogba may not be the world’s greatest midfielder. But anyone seriously arguing that United would be a better team without him is sadly deluding themselves.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies