An ode to the enigma that was Paul Pogba

An ode to the enigma that was Paul Pogba

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With the news that Paul Pogba has been suspended for four years (pending appeal), it almost certainly ends his career. Should he have to serve the full four seasons, he’ll be 35 and not have played in forever. The question of whether he’s a legend or left far too much on the table would depend on what kind of scarf you wear, which way the wind’s blowing, which kind of mood you’re in, and a host of other factors. There’s so much from a player who delighted and infuriated so many, including his own managers and teammates.

The trophy case is certainly full. Four Serie A titles with Juventus, a couple cups with Manchester United, and a World Cup with France in 2018 where he did look like the player he was always promised to be.

He can also probably thank Antony for replacing him as the symbol of this Glazer era of Manchester United, full of expensive signings that had little to do with what would happen on the field rather than what they could do with those signings off the field, i.e. sponsorships, ad campaigns, etc. But then maybe Pogba was using United for the same reasons? It was always hard to tell.

There were moments, many moments, for both United and Juventus, where Pogba looked like he would take over the world. While the world still focused on the forward battle of “Messi v. Ronaldo,” there were flashes that Pogba would move the discussion further back in the field. His last three years at Juve, the first go-around, were magnificent. He scored 23 goals and provided 23 assists in that time. The thing was, he wasn’t the best player on those Juve teams. These were the Bianconeri of Bonucci, Chiellini, Pirlo, and Marchisio, who relieved Pogba of any defensive responsibility, basically, and could be the most attacking midfielder.

United splashed out more than $100 million for Pogba to be their best player, to be the center of its universe. And there were times where he certainly was, especially in the 2018-2019 season when he scored 13 times and added nine assists. The problem was when Pogba was their best player, United weren’t very good. They finished sixth that season.

Maybe pairing him with Jose Mourinho was always doomed to fail. Mourinho rarely settles for being No. 2 on the marquee, unless it’s to a galactic star like Ronaldo, who would score 40 goals per season, and also never hesitated to throw his players under the bus when things went wrong. Pogba also was never really going to flourish under a conservative Mourinho system, and he also went from Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio providing a platform for him to Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, along with a 35-year-old Michael Carrick. Something of a downshift. Whereas Juventus played him right behind the forward line, United required him to play deeper with some defensive responsibility, or wide in a diamond formation because they couldn’t trust him to do the former, or forcing him to dovetail with Bruno Fernandes when he was in all the spaces that Pogba wanted to be in.

But Pogba certainly didn’t help his cause. There were all the injuries. He only cracked 2,500 minutes in the Premier League twice in six seasons. Those injury absences seemed to take longer and longer, and longer than his club thought they should. There were the completely anonymous performances that piled up as his career went on. Perhaps the last image most United supporters will have of Pogba is getting sent off while their most hated rival, Liverpool, were utterly destroying them at Old Trafford, 5-0. Here was a rival that United had put in the rearview mirror, now suddenly reborn with a genius manager, a front office with a clear plan and system, and star players all pulling in the same direction. All things that have evaded United for the past decade. Pogba came to symbolize all of that, a lavish purchase without a clear idea of how to get the best out of him, who would go into business for himself on occasion, sprinkled with glimpses of what it could have, should have, been.

At the international level, it wasn’t much different. He looked pretty tantalizing when starting four games for France in Brazil in 2014 at the age of 21. Even more so two years later at the Euros when France strutted to the final in Paris, but then went missing with the rest of his teammates as Portugal stole it, without Ronaldo on the field for most of it. It all came together in 2018 in Russia, and Pogba ran the show from the middle for most of the tournament. But he was also surrounded by both N’Golo Kante and Antoine Griezmann at the height of their powers, as well as the world’s introduction to Kylian Mbappe. Three years later at the Euros, Pogba was at the center of the usual French in-fighting when they went balls-up in the round of 16 to Switzerland on penalties. It was Pogba who gave away the ball needlessly to lead to the Swiss equalizer, and he didn’t exactly beat it back to his defensive duties to make up for it. Of course, in that same match, he did this:

Pogba’s AMAZING Goal Vs Switzerland | EURO 2020

Perhaps that match, his last on a big stage really, sums up everything that was Paul Pogba. No player was capable of reaching both the very ends of the spectrum, dominating a match one week because he felt like it and then being a complete ghost the next because he felt like it, and then being out injured for the next three because he felt like it. He wasn’t good enough to overcome the bass-ackwardsness of United, but no player in history could have been. He just made for a tidy shield for the real culprits. He didn’t make United shell out the cash they did for him, he didn’t enforce them to not surround him with a proper and functioning team , nor did he hire the managers who didn’t really have a clue either.

But Pogba also needed all of those things to consistently show off what he was capable of, and should it have required all of that? Given how talented he was? The answers are whatever you want them to be, which probably means there aren’t any answers at all. An enigma to the last. 

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