Opinion: Paul Pogba and a legacy of wasted talent

“Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!”

― Michael Moorcock, Stormbringer.

Paul Pogba’s time at Manchester United is going to be debated. Let’s not kid ourselves in that regard: the Frenchman might have left on a free (for the second time in his career, I might add), but people are going to be discussing his time at Old Trafford for years and there is going to be a lot of revisionism, a lot of double standards and a lot of trying to rewrite history of what actually happened, which has already started with the player himself and his total lack of self-awareness in his recent documentary, The Pogmentary.

The reality is that Pogba never fully delivered at the club. We can discuss, we can debate and that, when done with respect and honesty, can be quite fruitful, but no one can deny that the now former United player never lived up to the expectations and leaves the club after years of inconsistency, resentment, a lot of talking and a lot of wasted talent.

There is no denying that the Frenchman is a supreme talent and I have even gone on record saying that he had the potential to be the best player in the world. How could you watch this player, ever since his days at the United academy, and not think that he had what it takes to make it at the very top? But once he started out in the first team and got contentious about Sir Alex Ferguson not giving the chances he felt he deserved, the reality started to show and it should have been highlighted even further in recent years with his return.

I actually believe that one of the biggest issues with Pogba has always been the way he has been profiled. Despite his great talent, he has never been the main man at club level on a consistent basis and that has been due to the fact that he is not reliable, but media and Pogba himself have always viewed him in that particular manner. The truth of the matter is that he is a luxury player that can help improve an already-assembled squad, but he cannot be a core player that makes the whole team tick and that has been shown time and time again throughout the years.

For all the criticism that Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær received over the years due to several aspects of their tenures as Manchester United managers, both men tried to make Paul Pogba work and both of them got varied results, which is not encouraging. I would argue that Ole, overall, got more out of the Frenchman, but neither fully got a whole good season out of him and that is pretty telling when you consider that other players, such as Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, among many others, have managed to have at least one fully good season in struggling United sides.

Pogba is not reliable because, no matter where you put him on the pitch, he is not going to do his basics right. I have had my own fair share of disagreements with Paul Scholes as a pundit over the years, but he was definitely on point when he said, after United’s 2-2 draw with Atalanta at Italy in this season’s Champions League, that Pogba is going to be 35-years-old and still playing like a youngster, making the same irresponsible mistakes.

For all the constant talk about how the club “let him down” (which, in reality, has let everybody down), Pogba has always been the one doing the dumb penalties, failing to track back, dribbling in front of the defence and losing the ball for trying to pull off poorly-timed tricks and generally being unreliable with and without the football. How many times have United lost points due to his poor sense of decision-making where the club has nothing to do with it?

It is actually telling that Ole, for all the claims that he didn’t have tactical knowledge, managed to get a tune out of Pogba as a false left-winger because Labile couldn’t hack it in central midfield–if there are complains about the pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay, that union is a direct result of the club’s lack of investment in the area and Pogba being unreliable in any part of the pitch where being responsible with the ball is demanded of him.. And even then, his role there had direct ramifications in the team’s fast transitions and Marcus Rashford having to move to the right where he is less effective.

So, what you have here is a player that, while gifted, cannot perform regularly and consistently in one area of the pitch because, simply put, he doesn’t have an actual defined position. He is not a central midfielder, he is not a box-to-box midfielder, he is not a number ten, he is not a deep-lying playmaker and he is not a full false left-winger like, say, Andres Iniesta or Jack Grealish, to name a few. He can play in all those roles and perhaps it is a testament to his talents, but he never fully established himself in any of those roles and has proven to harm the team time and time again when given a run in those positions.

When it comes with Paul, there has always been an element of “What if…” instead of dealing with reality. “What if the United squad was better?” “What if he had a midfield especially made out to protect him?” “What if Pogba did this?” You get the drift.

You cannot build a team around him because he is simply not going to give you the output that treatment should provide. You can build the team around prime Cristiano Ronaldo or prime Lionel Messi because you are going to get 50 or 60 goals per season–Pogba’s average of six or seven goals and five or six assists is not enough to warrant a squad perfectly made out for him. For all the talk that he was a lot better at Juventus (a statement I don’t particularly agree with), that team wasn’t built around him, either, so that makes the whole discussion pointless.

“But he has been class with his national team.”

International football is a lot slower, gives players a lot more time on the ball, less physical and a lot less tactical–a perfect scenario that covers most of Pogba’s shortcomings and allows him to exploit his best attributes. Not saying this as criticism towards the Frenchman because it is the nature of football at that level, but it is a context that cannot be replicated at club level.

His time at United has been a monumental waste of time, energy, discourse and anger. His documentary has shown what he really thinks about the club and how he carries himself with his career. A man that always pursued money before actual success on the pitch, which was highlighted when he described United’s new contract offer of 300.000 pounds per week as “nothing” and his former agent, the now-deceased Mino Raiola, said in December of last year that Bayern Munich, one of the most competitive teams in the world and one of the most well-run, couldn’t afford his salary demands, thus showing how money comes first to him before actual competitiveness.

Now, I won’t sit here and claim that he has been a monumental failure and never had good moments in the team because he did, with periods such as the early 2017/18 run with Mourinho and the 2018/19 interim run with Ole and the 2020/21 period as a false winger being particular highlights of his time here. Performances such as the Europa League final in 2017, the Manchester derby in 2018 or destroying Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham in 2021, sacking him in the process, are great individual performances of his, but it doesn’t make his time here worthwhile. It all feels like too little, too late.

It is very fitting that his last game as a United player is him coming off “injured” against Liverpool at Anfield after 11 minutes with his team losing 1-0. It is a perfect microscope of his time at Old Trafford: when the going got hard, Pogba always bailed. Always. There was always that perfectly-timed injury, that usual stupid red card or the wrong decision. If the game is going well, he can do a job, but if things get difficult, he is the first one to run away from the problem.

Both parties are better off moving away from one another. Pogba can pretend to be elite in a declining Serie A and United can focus on trying to get their act together, this time without a player constantly slagging off the club through his agents and family and without all the unnecessary drama that entails, plus all the football situations we have already discussed.

Pogba never lived up to his potential and never will. He doesn’t have it in him because you cannot trust him as a player. For all the talk that his supporters have given over the years, putting him in “best in the world” or “all-timer” arguments, they only do it for the benefits, but not for the demands and the work that is required to be that good. Pogba never put in the work and was always prone to put all the blame on United, the managers, the teammates, etc.

A winner doesn’t put fingers on others. Only losers do.

Good riddance to Pogba. It wasn’t a pleasure at all. One of the biggest mistakes in United’s modern history.

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