Saturday 23 March 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Is Manchester United's strategy of shaping their future around Paul Pogba fatally flawed?'

Paul Pogba of Manchester United
Paul Pogba of Manchester United

Roy Curtis

Indisputably, Paul Pogba, with that ooze of cocksure swagger and drought of insecurity, transmits a bottomless certainty in his ability to make his own fantasies.

If sashaying conceit or look-at-me rhumbas were the measure of preeminence, Pogba, at 25, might have as many Ballon D'Or triumphs as Messi and Ronaldo combined.

And yet, if he conquered the world with France, if he has recently resembled an emperor-in-waiting at post-Mourinho Old Trafford, still, an increasingly familiar question must be posed in the wake of PSG's effortless Manchester ransacking. 

It is one that asks whether Pogba, for all the easy alchemy he can often summon, can ever be the guiding North Star to escort United back to the old Ferguson-era certainties.

On Tuesday, as his impact shrivelled to nothing, as his dereliction of duty was rewarded with a red card, it seemed appropriate to wonder if he is a natural born leader.

Or just the ultimate symbol of soulless ostentation.

As United seek to staunch the brilliance of Liverpool and Manchester City in the coming weeks, is the strategy of shaping their future around Pogba fatally flawed?

The answer perhaps arrived as the £89m headliner was once more reduced to a shell by Parisian opponents who, denied the sorcery of Neymar and the predatory eye of Edison Cavani, could still waltz to an untroubled two goal success.

On this higher Champions League terrain, Pogba was nothing more than a pretty haircut, a mute witness.

Before his home-country club inflicted such a timely and brutal reality check, an absurdly premature narrative had curled itself around the lithe, long-limbed Gallic prince.

It declared that with his nemesis, Jose Mourinho, overthrown, Pogba would be a fountainhead of blinding light guiding United from a long darkness, accelerating their rebirth as a major power.

The delusion gathered pace as he, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford became the poster boys of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's impressive mood-transforming ten game inauguration.

What was lost in the small-print was that those Pogba days of thunder came against the backstreet boys of Fulham, Brighton and Bournemouth.

Against PSG, at the beginning of a season-shaping run of fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and City, his aura melted and withered into the Old Trafford turf.

Pogba was a mere bondservant to the sublime Marco Verratti, powerless to counter the Italian's effortlessly authoritative commands.

A sole spark came with a flash of his old Mourinho-era spoilt-child petulance.  It earned Pogba a red-card and resurrected for the Stretford End a nagging fear.

It is the one that insists that United are building on quicksand if they attempt to reconstruct their empire upon such a tenuous, untrustworthy foundation stone.

Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, Ferguson-era pillars, might have been custodians of flawed temperaments, but on the biggest nights they invariably inflicted their will, declined to be beaten, set a standard that opponents could not reach.

Even Cantona's rages, an exclamation point to his starched-collar imperiousness, carried a kind of regal sophistication.

The King was indulged because, when it mattered most, as Ferguson's United strained for their first flash of sunlight, he was such a persuasive spinner of dreams.

His countryman can call on no such mitigation.

Too often, in those defining hours, the only superpower Pogba can summon is the capacity to make himself invisible.

And so, he must once more face the cutting accusation that he lacks the most vital quality for greatness, the ability to view the game as something more than a vehicle for his ego.

That he has been bestowed with such lavish gifts by the football gods only adds to the maddening frustration.

Pogba is the top scoring midfielder in the Premier League:  His 11 goals (eight in nine games before the tap ran dry last Tuesday) and eight assists emphasise a world class ability.

Yet, still, the sense is that on the nights that greatness is defined, the production line of his brilliance too often grinds to a sorry and immensely frustrating halt.

That he was a vital cog in the Gallic machine that conquered the planet last summer might suggest that the fault-line is to be found in United's largely artisan support cast.

Defensively, the faded Stretford aristocrats, are a permanently unlocked door, an invitation to superior housebreakers like Kylian Mbappe to steal the night.

Yet, the greatest players can compensate for the worst shortcomings, paper over cracks as wide as a canyon, turn on the faucet of inspiration when the need is greatest.

For the finest example, consider how Diego Maradona led an otherwise humdrum Argentina, one with hardly another grain of stardust, to World Cup glory in 1986.

Pogba, too, is a World Cup winner.  Indeed, he scored one of the four goals in the Luzhniki Stadium that denied wonderful, upstart Croatia custody of a stirring summer.

And if Mourinho spat only derision at the consensus that his then star player had reached new heights in Russia, Pogba's body of work over that month had an understated excellence.

But then, France also had the liquid grace of Mbappe, N'Golo Kante's unrivalled ability to fight and extinguish enemy fires and Antoine Griezemann's cold eye.

Pogba was never, truly, required to be France's leader.

That, as the midfielder's latest shirking of responsibility illustrated on Tuesday, is something for which Didier Deschamps should light a candle of thanks at Notre Dame.

Because, on those fraught nights when giants announce themselves, any team relying on Pogba for direction is as likely to end up in the gutter as clasping the stars.

In those defining moments, Manchester United's self-appointed fantasy-maker is exposed as a lavishly gifted fraud.

Online Editors

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