Saturday 24 March 2018

Comment: Paul Pogba was meant to be the new Roy Keane so somebody better tell him that

Paul Hayward

Jose Mourinho left but returned to the press room five minutes later, poking his heart with a finger, to denote pride. Asked about Manchester United’s “35%” possession rate against Liverpool, Mourinho had been to see his “guy” and had a different number for us to chew on. He stared at us all in turn and said: “44%.”

The reason Mourinho had marched off to find United’s in-house statto was that he realised “35%” would land him with some kind of unwanted record for United not having the ball. He hates these outside judgments anyway, almost as much as he dislikes “philosophies.”

The disparity between those two measurements illustrates one of the many flaws of possession-count-as-religion. But one thing we could all agree on is that Paul Pogba played a worryingly small part in whatever possession United did have.

Only this summer, Pogba, 23, was an immensely powerful young man with planet football on a string. Surveying his options, with his brutishly acquisitive agent, Mino Raiola, Pogba was evidently caught between a deeper urge to move to Spain and United’s willingness to blow any rival for his signature off the financial map: a desperation borne of their inability to sign Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Gareth Bale, all game-changers, or match-winners, which Pogba is not.

Roy Keane wasn't averse to a tough tackle

By shifting their financial firepower from proven striker to promising central midfielder, United rewrote the rules on record-breaking transfers. Their hope must have been that Pogba would solve the longstanding central midfield deficit, dazzle the club’s global audience and show their new No 6 to be Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane rolled into one. This, surely, was the only way he could justify a £93.2m price - a few million ahead of Gareth Bale, who can win you a game, not just provide a midfield motor.

The rush to judgement on Pogba in England was bound to be intensified by that dizzying and false valuation, which currently looks top heavy by about £50m. He arrived not only as one of the most athletic young midfielders of his generation but also as a political statement by United, just as Real Madrid paying £80m in cash for Ronaldo was a power play by the Bernabeu.

About the best you could say of Pogba’s settling-in period at Anfield is that it was a good job United signed the contract before sterling plunged even further against the Euro. To imagine him as a £100m commodity would help neither the player himself or the average Premier League spectator to believe sanity had not just ridden out of town.

The power Pogba and his agent wielded this summer has been stripped away, leaving only the money they made from the deal, which is still tasty, especially for Raiola, who is spared the discomfort of actually having to run around.

So the challenge for Pogba now becomes the purely sporting one of deciding what type of player he intends to be in the Premier League, because at the moment he appears to have no idea.

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Against Liverpool, Mourinho deployed him as an advanced midfield playmaker behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in a position Juan Mata or Wayne Rooney might have occupied. But in that hallowed role, Pogba was innocuous, as Mourinho conceded later. "We should have had a little bit more. I think we missed a little bit of sharpness through the middle between the positions where Pogba was,” he said, adding that he was tempted late in the game to move Marcus Rashford into the No 10 position but instead took off Rashford and installed Rooney.

To play there against Liverpool, at Anfield, was a promotion for Pogba, but not one that was earned in the conventional sense. On the contrary: he was a less appealing defensive midfield sentry than Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, and so Mourinho pushed him forward in the expectation that a clearer sight of goal would gee him up.

Overall the best hope was that Pogba would be a driving midfielder: the sort who picks up a game and carries it to the opposition, as Vieira did for Arsenal, or Keane for United. He would restore aristocratic swagger to an area of United’s team where too many journeymen had found employment. This still sounds like the best plan. But after some anonymous displays (Anfield on Monday was one), starting position seems less of an issue than Pogba’s state of mind.

Adaptation is tough. The Premier League is faster, more chaotic and more physically intense than Serie A, where Pogba spent four years with Juventus. But he knew that already, because he was at United from 2010-2012.

By the time he left Italy, a relentless hype had grown around him, though not so big that Barcelona or Real Madrid would enter a bidding war with United. His reputation, price and maybe even self-image were already distorted by the time he returned to Manchester.

None of this is terminal and he certainly should not be lampooned. But when Graeme Souness says, “I don’t see him having a great understanding of the game,” a starting gun should go off in Pogba’s head.

His entourage is not out there with him on the field. His agent is off somewhere doing his next deal. Pogba is alone with whatever talent he has and cannot escape the need to impose it, to get on the ball, to take control of matches. You hope the voice in his head will say – ‘This is my game, this is my night, only I can change this.’ Yet, as things stand, the game is going on around him as he dithers over his role and appears to think his mere presence is enough.

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