Paul Pogba is one heck of a midfielder but he was kept on the sidelines far too long. Is he finally coming onto his own now? The Hard Tackle takes a look.
“Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”
– The Prestige
One of the most iconic movies of the last decade, Michael Caine, in his character of Cutter, elucidates the machinations of a truly great magic trick. According to him, it must consist of 3 parts – The Pledge, where the magician takes something ordinary; The Turn, where he makes it disappear and The Prestige, where he makes it return to its original state.
Little did Caine know that about 13 years later a magic trick of such breathtaking proportions would unfold in the football-obsessed city of Manchester.
Born in Parisian suburbs, Paul Pogba’s rise to superstardom has been a remarkable one. Having signed for Manchester United as a 15-year-old in 2009, he was sold to Juventus three years later due to his constant petulance for being overlooked by then manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
United fully knew what they were losing back then though, for the Frenchman had already established his abilities with the reserves sides, with whom he had won the FA Youth Cup in 2011. In retrospect, however, the move away from Old Trafford served Pogba well.
While the shores of Manchester United was rocked by a managerial merry-go-round following the sudden retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, the youngster made hay as the sun shone on him in Turin. Under the tutelage of midfield stalwarts like Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, he honed his skills and established himself as one of the most exciting youngsters in the game.
With 8 titles in 4 years, the Frenchman returned to the club he left as a budding star as the most expensive player in the world in the summer of 2016. The pundits fully expected him to dominate the English game; it was his time to turn from a musician to the choirmaster in the middle of the park.
What they did not know, however, was that that transition would take him nearly two and a half years to complete.
With Jose Mourinho in charge, Pogba started off his time at Manchester United in a resounding fashion, winning the Europa League and the League Cup in his first season back home. It was from the second season though, that his problems with Mourinho began to take a toll on his performances.
The Portuguese is renowned for his overly defensive and, according to many, negative football strategies and Pogba did not adhere to such a philosophy. Often paired with Nemanja Matic or Ander Herrera as a midfield pivot, he was denied the freedom that made him a world-beater in Turin. Mourinho made Pogba toil and do the dirty work in midfield, which the player did reluctantly.
It was not a pretty sight for the eyes and that showed, on the pitch as well. Put on a leash, the former academy starlet was losing balls, making mistakes and seemed to look out of his depth at one point of time. Uninspired performances against Tottenham and Sevilla complemented by his focus on growing his clothing brand and his #Pogmoji app irked many fans who grew impatient of their academy lad.
The press and the fans were not kind to him either. Controversy always circled him, be it in the form of his frequent haircuts or run-ins with the manager, he was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. His form took a toll on the club’s fortunes as well, for they ended up winning nothing and finishing 19 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League that season.
Interestingly, the summer of 2018 would underline Pogba’s class once again and showed the world where Mourinho was going wrong with his tactics. In the World Cup, he bossed the midfield for France alongside N’Golo Kante en route to winning the trophy.
He was utilized in a pivot once again, but manager Didier Deschamps gave him the freedom to operate as a box-to-box midfielder which proved to be a masterstroke. With the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann on the flanks, Pogba was critical in executing France’s counter-attacking strategy to perfection.
Rumors though, started gathering steam about him – Barcelona were reportedly eager to recruit his services following the World Cup. In the end, however, United managed to ward off the suitors and kept him on their books.
But, the new season did not go according to plan either. Mourinho was adamant that his tactics were correct; he would not give Pogba the room to breathe.
Reports of the manager calling him a “virus”, videos of a bust-up between Pogba and Mourinho during training going viral, stripping the player of his vice-captaincy and publicly demeaning him again and again; all of it made the atmosphere too toxic for both of them to continue, it was obvious that one of them had to leave.
Given Manchester United’s repeated drab performances and the fact that they were 11 points adrift of the Champions League spot midway through December, it was Mourinho who got the axe. And since then, Pogba and United’s stock has been on the rise.
Following Mourinho’s departure, United legend Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was appointed as interim boss. In the 13 games that United have played since then, they have faced only one defeat (against continental heavyweights PSG in the UEFA Champions League) and Pogba has come into his own. With 9 goals and 6 assists since the Norwegian took over, he has been at the heart of United’s unexpected resurgence.
Following his performances against Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea over the last couple months, there can be no doubt that he is slowly cementing his reputation as one of the best footballers in the world at the moment. His vision, technical brilliance and dominant physical presence make him a complete package, and one that Solkjer is utilising to the fullest degree possible.
It was evident in United’s win over Chelsea in the FA Cup last weekend; Pogba was the architect of the victory with a goal and an assist in the first half that separated the two sides. However, his defensive contributions in the second half were just as crucial, for without them it looked unlikely for United to register a win at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2012.
The Paul Pogba we see now is completely different to the one that was on show at United for the last one and a half season or so. Under Solksjaer, he has found a mentor who is willing to tap into his creative genius that enables him to make a difference in the clutch games.
In a way, his journey is no less than a magic trick, he had done the Pledge during his time at Juventus, he has undergone the Turn under Mourinho and now finally, we see the Prestige wherein Paul Labile Pogba announces his unquestionable brilliance to the world that leaves his audience spellbound.
The only question now is, how daring his magic trick will be and where he will end up being among the pantheon of great midfielders that France has produced.