Paul Pogba at Manchester United: Success or failure?
Photo: HonorTheKing, CC by 2.0
And so it is about to end. Paul Pogba's time at Manchester United draws to a conclusion. If there's one word to define the Frenchman's three-year tenure at Old Trafford, it must be eventful. The 26-year-old has ticked every box, positive and negative.
He became the first Manchester United player to score in a World Cup final. He helped the Red Devils win the Europa League and EFL Cup in the same season. He was a part of the second best team in England in 2017/18, finishing second in the Premier League behind Manchester City and losing the FA Cup final to Chelsea. Finally, he went on to produce his career-best season in terms of direct goal contributions and made it into the PFA Team of the Year.
Manchester United fans don't care a whit what a player does for his country, especially when it isn't England. While he was a part of the double success in 2017/18, he wasn't the driving force you'd anticipate given his £94.5 million fee, even after Zlatan Ibrahimovic was injured. United finished second to Manchester City but it wasn't a Decision Day heartbreaker like Sergio Aguero scoring against QPR to pip the Red Devils in 2012. It was a distant second, 19 points behind the Sky Blues. Moreover, the club expects to win FA Cup finals, not lose them. Considering that United finished sixth in 2018/19, supporters tend to wonder where Pogba was at the critical moments in his career year.
In the midst of his career year, while he was feuding with Mourinho and the manager's social media posse ganged up on him, he remained silent while his agent made ebbing comments about the club. They disparaged him for ghosting in games, holding the ball too long, reeking of inconsistency, and not displaying a consummate work ethic. They didn't believe his heart was in it.
Others found the criticism unfair. His numbers were undeniable and if he was holding the ball too long [not an inaccurate analysis] didn't that mean he was taking too much on himself rather than coasting? Was he as bad as the most vocal supporters claimed or can you just not please some people?
It is difficult to judge Pogba's time in Manchester. It isn't black or white. Like English weather, it's a grey area.
His first season was amazing even though the stats didn't show it. Zlatan was the man that season but Pogba formed an excellent midfield trio with Ander Herrera and either Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini. The exuberant Frenchman played exquisite diagonals and through balls from deep, involved himself in sumptuous one-two touch play and used his athleticism to cover every blade of grass. #Pogback certainly worked. It wasn't perfect but fans could see progress.
The next term began brightly. United had a more mobile striker in Romelu Lukaku and Pogba a new midfield partner in Nemanja Matic. The double pivot worked wonders until Pogba picked up a muscle injury. United's title hopes dimmed.
The turning point came in February when Pogba was substituted vs Spurs and Newcastle and dropped for both legs of the Champions League game against Sevilla. He came off the bench on both occasions but the damage was done. The relationship with Mourinho was damaged beyond repair.
It's not a thing you can keep from the press although Pogba tried.
A coach and a player don’t have to be best friends. We don’t have to eat out together. We had some problems, but it was a mental issue. He put me on the bench but I responded on the pitch, always giving my best. There were some little things which I’ll keep between Mourinho and I. Will I stay at United? Contractually speaking, yes, but you can never be certain of anything.
In the summer, while United fans ranted about his faults, the player was instrumental in France's World Cup triumph. When asked about the difference between his play for club and country, Les Bleus boss Didier Deschamp replied that Pogba "could not be happy at his club." The man himself admitted as much.
If you’re not happy, you cannot give your best.
That is the secret that unlocks Pogba. Unfortunately, neither Mourinho nor the fans listened. When pressed to further explain his remark, the midfielder went a step too far.
There are things that I cannot say otherwise I will get fined.
While it opened a window on the lack of freedom and trust in Mourinho's clubhouse, it was a matter best left between player and club. Pogba had broken his promise.
Otherwise, he remained professional, cutting short his holidays to lead United out on the first day of the 18/19 season. It had no effect. Mourinho went on to call him a "virus", dropping him for six of his last eight games in charge, promising Pogba would never captain United on his watch. That watch ended when he left his no.6 on the bench for the entirety of a humiliating loss to Liverpool.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer restructured the squad around Pogba when he took charge. The Frenchman repaid him in kind, putting in amazing performances against the likes of Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester. He became United’s match-winner and go-to guy but even that wasn’t enough for the United faithful.
When he and the squad ran out of petrol at the end, they forgot Pogba had not had a full holiday to recharge his batteries and lit into him again. Now he isn't speaking about contracts and uncertainty over the future. He has decided to leave.
With his goal involvement, Paul Pogba won the second most points (22) of any Premier League save Eden Hazard (23). He led Manchester United’s charts in goals, assists, chances created, duels won, dribbles completed and passes into the final third.
His big game record follows his mood. He registered no points against top six clubs in his first season at Old Trafford although that can be written off to acclimation. In his second season, he claimed three each in goals and assists, including a second-half brace at the Etihad that prevented City from lifting the title for a week. That's a feat fans usually celebrate for a lifetime. How many of you were thinking of it before reading this paragraph? Instead, you were probably muttering about this past campaign in which Pogba again went dark against the big boys, unhappy as he was.
On Mourinho's watch, he told reporters he wanted to see the club be more aggressive, close out games. After the Portuguese departed, he needed to back up that talk with the walk. On a consistent basis, he couldn’t. Those who think players make too much money to expect happiness will say he wouldn't. That he downed tools.
Now, there's no looking back. Not until Pogba thrills Europe with his exploits in a Real Madrid or Juventus shirt.