Has Paul Pogba flopped at Manchester United?

Paul Pogba has publicised his desire for a “new challenge” away from Old Trafford. The Frenchman stated, “it could be a good time” to move onto greener pastures whilst acknowledging “everything that happened this season, being [his] best season”.

This follows a precarious three years at Manchester United, where a large section of supporters have grown increasingly frustrated with the Frenchman’s attitude – both on and off the pitch.

Paul Pogba is the best player United have signed in the post-Ferguson era – but is treated amongst the worst by fans. While the statistics (and those who misuse them) may suggest that Pogba’s time at United was a flop, I’d argue that Manchester United have flopped Paul Pogba.

United’s lack of direction post-Ferguson

On all fronts, bar commercially, Manchester United are a mess. On the pitch, the squad bares resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster – an unbalanced amalgamation of players acquired by three managers with different philosophies.

While each of Ferguson’s successors boasted different tactical setups, the football remained mundane. Twinned with poor results, this caused United fans to turn on managers in search of a quick fix. Instead, what they have been left with is an expensive squad depreciating in value and players whose strengths are not compatible with their manager’s philosophy.

Pogba has found himself in the middle of this mess and – while not the greatest achievement – he has been the stand-out player of this team. The effects of such a lack of direction in running the club have played a major role in Pogba and United’s poor three seasons. A great player like Pogba, with no great players around him, means Manchester United are still suffering – and they will suffer even more without him.

Off the pitch, United also flattered to deceive – with a slew of questionable signings and managerial appointments. Former Manchester United managers, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes recently spoke on the restraints they faced in the transfer market during their respective tenures.

The combination of these realities has left United in a sore spot and the main culprits are clear. The common denominators of United’s lack of direction post-Ferguson are the Glazers and Ed Woodward. With astute business nous but unimaginative football minds, the chairmen at United have overseen and facilitated this post-Ferguson disasterclass.

Ed Woodward stands with owner Avram Glazer. Photo: Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

United’s directors have a disconcerting taste in managers to say the least. Upon the appointment of Moyes, the top brass at United all expressed their pleasure – citing Moyes’ “strong track record” as motivation for their choice.

While hindsight can be a wonderful thing, I found parts of their statements quite staggering. Joel Glazer stated, “we strongly believe [Moyes] will continue this club’s tradition of flair football played by exciting, world-class players”.

Pardon?

United’s failure to sign Toni Kroos, despite an informal agreement with the player, and consequential mid-season sacking of Moyes makes one question how strong the chairmen’s belief in the Scottish manager really was. Moyes himself has also spoken out about his torrid tenure at United, referencing his and Woodward’s struggle to adapt as successors to club stalwarts Ferguson and David Gill.

This lack of footballing expertise amongst the top brass at United has been no secret, with such names as Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher knocking around as potential technical directors. But Ferguson’s comprehensive reign of Manchester United was so poorly re-organised after his departure that the club have never appointed a technical director. Instead, managers endured strained relationships with Woodward, who had his eyes fixed more on the commercial side of things.

Manchester United’s over-reliance on commerciality, whilst taking them to the pinnacle of world football, has significantly hampered them in recruitment in recent years. Without a senior figure with a footballing background, United’s squad carries a lot more dead wood than their domestic rivals.

Perhaps no player has suffered from this more than Pogba – and while it is easy to blame the Frenchman, his environment is very much dictated by those running the club. Before you compare him to his more successful rivals, spare a thought for how x player would cope in this United side and how Pogba would in a City, Liverpool or Spurs side.

Even Pogba’s return to United had an uncomfortably commercial undertone to it. Three years later, it is clear that Pogba’s move was backed more by commercial and marketing reasons than any real desire to build on a footballing vision.

Great power with great responsibility

In his most recent season, Pogba’s xG (expected goals) was 15.88, a career best for the Frenchman and almost double his next best xG for Juventus in the 2015/16 season. An impressive statistic at first glance but Pogba’s seven goals from the penalty spot has indeed inflated this metric. Nevertheless, Pogba’s 2018/19 NPxG (non-penalty expected goals) of 8.27 is still strikingly similar to his best xG for Juventus (8.84).

The key takeaway from this is that, even when discounting his penalties, Pogba still took an almost identical quality of shot last season despite being in a much worse side than the 2015/16 Juventus team. In fact, looking at Pogba’s goal involvements per minute, his last two seasons are his best with a goal or assist every 134 and 136 minutes in 2017/18 and 2018/19 respectively. So, is he really the problem?

According to a large section of the club’s fanbase, the answer is yes when, in actuality, Pogba is responsible for any moderately decent footballing display.

Manchester United’s on-field plight has revolved around their inability to progress play well to the final third, particularly under Jose Mourinho. This stagnant attacking style has resulted in Pogba dropping deeper to collect the ball from his centre backs, due to their inability to execute progressive passes. But the lack of quality and movement ahead of Pogba in this deeper position rendered much of United’s attack toothless.

Add this to the fact that Pogba is a much better player in the final third than as a deep-lying playmaker, you begin to realise that the blame for poor football is perhaps unfairly weighted on the World Cup winner’s shoulders.

However, Pogba’s influence in this United side attaches a microscopic lens to his performances, one which detracts attention from his more guilty counterparts. While the entire team performs badly, Pogba faces the brunt of United fans’ vitriol, best and most recently evidenced in United’s disappointing loss to Cardiff at the end of last season.

Pogba vs the Pundits

As one of the biggest clubs on the planet, United’s games are some of the most televised – meaning increased levels of scrutiny from pundits and fans alike. But as United have continued to perform disappointingly, many well-regarded pundits have built up a reputation for scapegoating Pogba, despite the entire club’s glaring inadequacies.

Pogba effortlessly pulls off the extraordinary because his side is so abject of quality. On the inevitable occasion where it does not come off, judging by the reactions, you’d have thought the Frenchman had taken a foul throw.

The relentless comparisons to other world-class midfielders with completely different tactical set-ups and squads shows real disingenuity amongst pundits, as this has only fuelled the hostility against the Frenchman. Funnily enough, those same pundits do not pay the same attention to Pogba’s 2018 World Cup success, where he was surrounded by (wait for it…) world-class players.

Jonathan Liew best encapsulated the negligence in these comparisons, referencing weaknesses of some of the best midfielders whilst attaching the unrealistic standards to which Pogba is judged by.

While the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen and Luka Modric are all excellent at what they do, they also have something else in common which Pogba does not. World-class teammates. Manchester United’s over-reliance on Pogba is embarrassingly clear given that the Frenchman tops the stats for virtually every ‘most’ category, according to Squawka.

Credit: Squawka

The fact that a central midfielder can rank highest in both goals and assists, both fouls won and duels won and both shots on target and chances created reveals just how vital Pogba is to Manchester United. The only other top-six player to top these stats just bagged himself a £90 million move to Real Madrid.

United’s cavernous lack of quality players, particularly in midfield, means Pogba is tasked with a more all-encompassing role than his world-class counterparts. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva can go forward safe in the knowledge that Fernandinho or Bernardo Silva will be on hand to stop the counter. Pogba, on the other hand, had Herrera and Matic (maybe).

Gary Neville is among those who have repeatedly criticised Pogba for having his head turned by other clubs. But when you are scorned after your best season, you realise how badly the club is run and that no world-class players are likely to join you at Old Trafford, why on earth would your head not be turned?

When he plays well, his “body language” and “attitude” is questioned. When he doesn’t play well, his “leadership” and transfer fee are called into serious question. If I – or anyone else – was in Pogba’s shoes, I would have had enough a long time ago.

Pogba vs Jose

Finally, Jose Mourinho has significantly tarnished Pogba’s reputation and relationship with Manchester United. While not the best manager, Mourinho is a master in the media. His insistent public gibes at the 26-year-old, even after his departure, has spurred an uncomfortably stubborn environment against the Frenchman. To where the likes of Roy Keane feel emboldened in accusing the Frenchman of blatant dishonesty, met with a concurring chuckle from Graeme Souness.

Of course, any assessment of The Special One’s tenure would be amiss without mention of his infamous fallouts. Pogba is just one link on a chain of world-class players which Mourinho has ostracised in his managerial career. Illustrious names like Iker Casillas, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne all endured public spats with Mourinho which shaped their careers, much like Pogba.

Pogba and Mourinho on the touchline (Credit: Getty Images)

An interesting and quite Machiavellian ploy from the 56-year-old, as these bust-ups detracted from his own managerial shortcomings whilst redirecting the fan’s hostility to an established player in the squad. By rallying fans against an influential player when the team is not performing well, Mourinho created what Jonathan Wilson described as a siege mentality back in 2015, amid his trademark third season meltdown at Chelsea.

So, even after Mourinho wheeled out his same ruse on Pogba, it is quite astonishing how some have not yet grasped Mourinho’s cyclical toxicity and instead swear that Pogba was the “virus” that his former manager declared him to be.

Conclusion

It goes without saying that no player is without their flaws, and that is especially the case with Pogba. However, when these flaws are extrapolated at a rate which ignores the full scope of United’s inadequacies, it paints Pogba as the villain rather than the facilitator.

Whether you question Pogba’s defensive nous, his record against the top-six or his tendency to lose his concentration, the 26-year-old World Cup winner is stretched more than most other world-class central midfielders. In addition to this, the Frenchman has generated more hatred than any player in the post-Ferguson era whilst playing for a club seemingly without a footballing identity or vision.

When the analysis of Pogba does not go deeper than his attitude and work-rate, it is not really an analysis – it is just an opinion. The problem is that many have used these gratuitous opinions to assert – not only that Pogba’s time at United was a failure – but that the club will somehow be better off without him, when this could not be further from the truth.

Despite all of this, Pogba’s last season was his best and I for one would not begrudge him for leaving Manchester for Madrid. What is certain is that when Pogba does eventually leave for a better team, two things will happen. Firstly, he will be successful at his new club and, secondly, United fans will look back on his time in Manchester much more favourably.

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