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The Good, the Bad, and the Haircuts: Reflecting on Paul Pogba’s United Stint

Question: Can anyone name a soccer player that divides opinion more than Paul Pogba? The Frenchman, who is leaving Manchester United this summer, is the cause of many arguments among fans and pundits. Some believe he flatters to deceive, whereas others believe his lacklustre time at United was down to the fact the Red Devils’ management never used his talents correctly. Most people do agree that Pogba has talent, of course.

For France, it is a different matter. Pogba is a World Cup winner with his country. He is integral for Les Bleus, and one of the main reasons they are among the favourites in the football betting for the 2022 World Cup. Pogba, his proponents say, works for France because the team is set up in such a manner that accommodates him. They say similar things about his time at Juventus.

Accommodation was always questioned

It is true that Pogba benefitted from playing with N’Golo Kante for France, as well as Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio for Juventus. But it is simply not correct to say that United’s line-up wasn’t adjusted to help get the best out of Pogba. He needed to be part of a midfield three, one where he was afforded a level of freedom. He got that on numerous occasions with Fred and Scott McTominay. Nobody is comparing those players to Kante or Pirlo, but they are defensive and industrious, allowing Pogba to do his thing.

Critics have said that Pogba couldn’t play in a midfield two. While it might not be making the best of Pogba when asking him to defend, he can play in the role and has even shined on occasion. He does sometimes play for France as part of a two (with Kante), and you might be surprised at how adept he was at it for a time at United. His critics tend to forget that.

On the other hand, it was often supposed that United’s forward line wasn’t made up of the kind of players suited to Pogba. A lack of intelligent running behind defences wasn’t a trait of United players, even if Pogba did have fast teammates like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. But at times, it did work for brief periods under both Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Both managers had the most success when playing counterattacking football, and Pogba was at the heart of that.

Injury record should be given more scrutiny

Pogba’s injuries clearly had a detrimental effect on his United career. His last three seasons saw him make 16, 26 and 20 appearances respectively in the Premier League. Worse still for Pogba, he always seemed like one of those players who had to get a run of games to find his best form. All too often, his season would be derailed by injury when things were looking good.

We should, of course, talk of some of the good moments. First in a general sense, there is a relentless positivity to Pogba’s style of play. United fans at Old Trafford will often chant, “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK”, b;ut it felt like a somewhat forlorn request in recent years. Pogba heard those calls, however. He was always looking to play the ball forward, to take risks.

The great moments shouldn’t be overlooked

And there were some superb moments. His two goals against Manchester City at the Ethiad were incredible, as he inspired United to fight back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. His best run of form came in the 2018/19 season, particularly when Solskajer took over from Mourinho. Pogba played in all but three Premier League games that season, scoring thirteen goals from midfield.

In the end, Pogba will always be representative of the Manchester United era he played in. The fact he moved from United to Juventus on a free transfer in 2012, then was sold back to United for £89 million, only to move back to Juventus (probably) on a free seems like a parable for the mismanagement of United in recent years. In a different universe, Pogba could have worked at United. As it stands, fans are left wondering what might have been.  

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