There’s a moment in the movie The Dark Knight where Jim Gordon describes the titular hero as “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” In a strange way, Manchester United fans have attempted to make Paul Pogba into the hero they need, without determining where the Frenchman’s talents really lie. To be fair, it might not be just the fans; it might indeed be management and even Pogba himself who are trying to create a particular type of hero, and one which is not yet perfectly suited to Pogba’s skillset.
On Sunday against Everton, Paul Pogba demonstrated once again his tremendous talent. Too often it has been said of Manchester United that they don’t turn up until the second half, but this wasn’t the case on Sunday. United dominated the game for the first sixty-five minutes and Pogba was central to that attacking flow. It was that Pogba we appreciate and idealise; that easy-on-the-eye, languid-on-the-ball style that incorporates beautiful dribbling and eye-of-a-needle passing. At its very best, it’s Ronaldinho meets Steven Gerrard; that ability to take the ball deep inside his own half, drive the team forward and lay off that killer cross-field ball.
The player so often critiqued as a “YouTube player” is indeed a YouTube player in the finest sense, but he cannot be discarded as a mere tricks and dribbles merchant. Pogba provides far more and his showreel is being filled with genuine game-defining moments. The £89m potential-based price tag is no longer a millstone around Pogba’s neck and we are now witnessing the £89m actualisation of talent. It is not potential anymore. Paul Pogba is the real deal in Manchester.
Manchester United would not have beaten Everton or Newcastle this month without Pogba. Similarly, they would not have beaten Manchester City or Everton last season without his game winning talent. His vision; that idiosyncratic ability to spot a ball, demonstrated by the pass he played to Anthony Martial on the half hour mark against Everton, is the realisation of that once-expensive potential.
It might have taken a while. It might have taken more than two seasons, but Paul Pogba has finally come of age in Manchester.
Sadly, there is a downside.
We can forgive the haircuts, the emojis and the Instagram posts with opposition players when Pogba performs well – as he did in the first sixty-five minutes against Everton. However, the basic error that he made – wherein he tried to beat two players and loft the ball over an opponent’s head at close quarters - that led to the Everton penalty is the flaw in his game that will continue to hamper his ascension to the world elite.
It was by not the first time that Paul Pogba made such an error, but it was highly costly in a game which Pogba had otherwise dominated. Pogba made a similar, basic error against Wolves in September which led to the opposition equaliser. It is a continued lack of maturity; a recklessness that makes you consider where Paul Pogba is best accommodated at Manchester United.
Doubters be damned. Paul Pogba is definitely an £89m player. He’s definitely worth the hype, and he’s definitely the type of player worth building an offence around. But the problem is that Paul Pogba is still not a responsible central midfielder. Developing that maturity is the final frontier in his development, but whether it will come is debatable.
Paul Pogba is now twenty-five years old. Should he be seen as the type of player to lionise our midfield, or should he be granted more of a free role in the Manchester United offence –like Juan Mata against Everton – to allow him to impact games, roam brilliantly like he can, while having the comfort of three central midfielders to shield the defence?
There is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that say, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It is very possible that Pogba needs to be liberated in the Manchester United line-up to truly maximise his ability. It is highly unlikely that had Ronaldinho joined United in 2003, or even Wesley Sneijder in 2010, that they would have been asked to fulfil a central midfield role with responsibilities in both attack and defence. That freedom would have allowed those two maestros the space to do they things they did best, and Pogba now needs the same.
There is no doubt that Paul Pogba should be in the Manchester United line-up and his attacking flair is a central part of a well-functioning Manchester United machine. Ryan Giggs at twenty-five operated a wide berth at United as he simply did not have the maturity (nor did United have the need) for him to play centrally, a skill he developed with age, like Pogba might yet do.
Maybe Paul Pogba will look elsewhere and think: I wouldn’t be judged this harshly at Barcelona. Nobody would mind these infrequent mistakes at Juventus. He might think that now, but Cesc Fabregas once thought that too. The simple, basic errors in Paul Pogba’s game need to be eradicated for him to genuinely become an elite player. Pogba can fool himself and think that he is judged this harshly because it’s Manchester; that the cold, rainy night in Stoke talk is all bullshit, and because he doesn’t like José Mourinho’s tactics, but these are mistakes that will cost every team points.
A problem for Paul Pogba is that Florentino Perez knows this. Uli Hoeness knows this. And Barcelona want Neymar it seems.
Watching Manchester United defeat Everton on Sunday was a strange throwback to both the Ferguson and Mourinho eras. They were brilliant at times, and Paul Pogba was central to that. Watching Pogba and Martial demolish and demoralise the Everton players in the opening hour was a welcome sight at Old Trafford, and one which hasn’t been seen in quite a while. Martial terrorised Everton and Paul Pogba worked tirelessly to provide his countryman the ball.
But United’s more recent history was evident in the last half hour. Even before Pogba’s costly error, United had let Everton back into the game and what should have been a routine 3-0 or 4-0 victory suddenly became edgy and stilted. United fans will hope that against Bournemouth, Juventus and Manchester City that they will see more of the performance from the first half, and for that to happen, their talented Frenchmen will need to shine once again.