Manchester United manager José Mourinho is feeling intense pressure following a stark decline in United’s quality of play and results in 2018. The on-field performances have been insipid; hallmarked by occasional tactical surrender and a wealth of underperforming superstars. Among those maligned superstars is Frenchman Paul Pogba, the so-called creative heartbeat of the side; a mercurial talent whose best games are discussed more frequently than they are witnessed.
The languid Pogba can be the most beautiful and elegant of players. The 2018 World Cup in Russia provided many stars, but it showcased the talents of Paul Pogba most prominently; a man whose immense athleticism, gracefulness and game winning talent was apparent to all, not only as a central force in France’s midfield throughout the tournament, but also scoring in the final and showing true grit and graft to create a goal for teammate Kylian Mbappé.
To his admirers, Pogba is the marauding, domineering, natural heir-to-Zidane in the pantheon of great French playmakers. He can mix football with art, effortlessly taking a simple pass and deftly curling it around two opposition players while creating an opportunity for teammates.
There is a dichotomy to the French talisman however. Mourinho said on Saturday week, “sometimes simplicity is genius,” in a not-so-disguised barb at Pogba. Not always so graceful or effortless on the ball, the refusal to take that same simple pass and play it to a teammate, rather than the ‘glory’ option has frustrated both his United manager and the fans, making Pogba a player also known for taking too many touches and complicating otherwise straightforward matters.
It would be fair therefore to say that his overall performances in Manchester have been mixed. He has on occasion demonstrated that aforementioned game deciding talent, that ability to take control of games when the garrison has all but surrendered; but it has been fleeting. Pogba has lacked concentration at crucial moments, misplacing passes and becoming easily dispossessed by lesser players.
Supporters of the Parisian would suggest that José Mourinho’s tactical straightjacket is the problem, with countryman Eric Cantona recently criticising the Portuguese for failing to impart his players with the same level of freedom that Alex Ferguson once did.
It could all of course be an immaterial argument. Pogba’s malaise might be attributed to his own application or attitude; his perceived desire to be elsewhere — other teams, other cities or other pool parties, with the cavalcade of different celebrities that would add colour to his life were he anywhere but rainy, monochromatic Manchester.
The career of Paul Pogba at Manchester United is now starting to echo the latter-day New York Giants career of Eli Manning. Both players have demonstrated phenomenal, game winning talent yet their careers have been hurt by an oft-scrutinised lack of consistency. Manning’s ability to shine on the greatest stage has been feted, though his performances away from the greatest of stages have often fallen short.
A frequent debate, of both Pogba and Manning individually, is whether they could one day find that desired reliability, or even whether either could be ‘liberated’ by a new coach.
In a manner similar to Pogba at the 2018 World Cup, Manning has demonstrated a winner’s pedigree, reigning supreme in both Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVII at the expense of Tom Brady’s New England Patriots on both occasions. The flip side however is that Manning has only reached the playoffs once since that last Superbowl win, with the New York Post recently running a story titled Eli Manning is doing just enough to keep his Giants job.
Manning has had two Super Bowl winning seasons, but also six seasons with 15+ interceptions, highlighting fundamental problems. Pundits have suggested that if you disregard the two Super Bowls from Eli’s back-catalogue then you arguably do not have a Hall of Fame Quarterback. Could the same be same of Paul Pogba and his World Cup victory?
The point of comparison is not to labour the similarities between sportsmen in radically different fields, but to perhaps demonstrate that the presence of game winning talent and impressive highlight reels are not enough for players at top level sports teams anymore. Something more is now required; something gritty, enduring and committed, that desire to mix it with the best on a Saturday and then line out against cup minnows on a Wednesday, never letting the side down, for every performance is an overt demonstration of loyalty to the badge and what it represents.
What can Manchester United learn from Eli Manning and the New York Giants? Two new head coaches in New York have not liberated the aging Manning, and a new coach at United may in turn not suddenly impart maturity and consistency on Pogba. Manchester United are a desperately failing team though Pogba’s performances are currently newsworthy beyond the remit of merely managerial tactics.
A Roy Keane of the 1998-2002 variety or a Peyton Manning of the 2003-2009 variety, men who provided some of the most excellently consistent performances in winning seasons may not be what Paul Pogba provides in abundance. But like Eli Manning showed in playoff runs, and like Pogba demonstrated in the World Cup, brilliance is definitely contained within and it can and will help their teams win the biggest prizes, though supporter and managerial patience may ultimately be required in the interim.
The talent on offer from Paul Pogba may only be that fleeting brilliance, that ability to turn a two-nil deficit to Manchester City on its head and win the vital derby for United by sheer force of ability, charisma and will; with supporters knowing and perhaps even accepting that the following week may not see the same level of application or brilliance.
Then again; Pogba might finally develop the desired maturity and consistency to cast aside any Eli Manning comparison and become the reliable engine room his team so desperately requires; no longer performing in a staccato fashion, punctuated by high profile errors and disappearances in big games.
Leaving the Manning comparison aside, the most likely outcome is that Pogba will leave Manchester United in the coming years to join another Champions League club, taking his talents to Paris or Spain; locations with strong teams that could perhaps carry a genius of the intermittent calibre.
Fortnightly European Champions League games often escape without scrutiny until a player of Pogba’s, Lionel Messi or Mbappé’s ability does something truly breathtaking. That moment is then covered ad nauseam in the press and social media for the days that follow. This may in actual fact be the type of footballing arena which is best suited to Paul Pogba; where observers can appreciate his genuine brilliance and vision, celebrating his victories and expecting absolutely nothing else.