The World Cup Is Not Enough: The Paul Pogba Paradox
The World Is Not Enough
Germany are defending champions. Brazil has ludicrous attacking talent. Portugal are European champions and have Ronaldo. Argentina has Messi. England has manifest misery. Every national team heads into this World Cup with a particular strength.
But no team is as balanced, deep, or talented as France. France is so good they are leaving at home Aymeric Laporte, Anthony Martial, Adrien Rabiot, Alexandre Lacazette, Kurt Zouma, and Kingsley Coman. That's half of a squad any team in the world would kill for.
With all that talent, it would seem that the team could play any number of ways, build on an number of players. Except as it was beginning at the Euro in 2016, this team runs through Paul Pogba. And this World Cup finds the galloping, rangy talent in a different place. Entering the Euro tournament in France, Pogba was just coming off a world-record breaking transfer to Manchester United from Juventus. With the Old Lady, Pogba played a a major role in the club rolling to four consecutive Serie A titles (with one title prior to his arrival and two after his departure, Juventus has won a ridiculous seven in a row). They had made a run all the way to the Champions League final.
How much can change in two years.
With Manchester United, Pogba has seen his fortunes rise and fall more drastically than Jon Snow. Over the previous two seasons his club has, to some pundits, underachieved in capturing only the FA Cup and Europa League while finishing in sixth and second in the Premier League. It's all too predictable, though, for players in the UK - the blowback of losing at a major club like United is nothing new.
Pogba is a unique player in that he carries the burden of both talent and price. After his record transfer, Pogba was pegged by the overly exuberant as a saviour and a terrible value by the cynics. Nevermind that he chose to return to United rather than head to any of the other biggest clubs in Europe who were more than willing to pay the fee.
It’s the burden of talent that most dampens how fans view Pogba at United.
You don’t need to look very far to find another player who lives with a similar reputation: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal. Ozil may have it worse, though, because during his Arsenal run the team has very rarely broke the bank to surround him with similar levels of talent.
Maybe this comes from a national mentality about the sport. After all, no one confuses the English national team with one playing at the forefront of the game’s trends. The idea of a creative midfielder in English football looks more like Frank Lampard than anything remotely resembling Pogba (Lampard’s recent comments that Pogba is a “YouTube player” indicate this outdated way of thinking – Lampard’s former national teammate, David Beckham, would be considered much worse were he to play today).
This is a source of mischaracterization within the sport. Football is a team sport won by individuals. Unlike North American sports where there is almost no middle ground, football can be won in any number of variations on individual and team talents. Superior individuals in basketball, however, can sweep a balanced, talented team by themselves, as Lebron James did to the Toronto Raptors. In American football, Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t going to carry the New York Giants on his back to a successful season. In footie, that can be different. While a total team effort is needed many times throughout a long campaign, it can be the individual brilliance of a player who can unlock the keys to victory.
Lionel Messi has proven this year for Barcelona that he is the difference between winning and losing. Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal tally similarly is not something Madrid could easily replace. Antoine Griezmann and Mo Salah belong in that category, as well. Where would Pogba’s own team be without David De Gea? Look at the struggles Bayern Munich had to go through without Manuel Neuer. Manchester City probably would have won the league without David De Bruyne but how often was one of his murderous passes the thing that broke open a defence this season?
Like Ozil at Arsenal, Pogba has proven to not be the kind of player who single-handedly can lift his team game-to-game. In this respect, the only fair criticism of Pogba has been his lack of consistency as part and parcel of United’s lack of consistency. Pogba is the kind of player who elevates above the rest when surrounded by players similar in skill level.
That’s why this World Cup will prove to the world that Pogba is not a failure nor overrated, but simply mis-rated. Surrounded by first-teamers, Pogba is certain to be more free, the way he was at Juventus. In Turin, he was bracketed by Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. He was sliding forward passes to Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente, and Alvaro Morata. He had defensive coverage from Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. That’s a far cry from playing alongside Ander Herrera and Juan Mata, backup by Eric Bailly and Phil Jones, and goal-scoring from Romelu Lukaka and Marcus Rashford.
For France, he’ll have the aforementioned Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe out in front. He’ll have Steven Nzonzi, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi to link up with in the midfield. His defenders will be Samuel Umtiti, Benajmin Mendy, and Raphael Varane. That kind of talent allows a lesser player to disappear into the flow of play. For a player like Pogba, it allows him to not only breathe but express himself loudly.
Sure, the difference between wins and losses with ultimately fall on Griezmann’s shoulders to bury every opportunity and half-chance he gets, but with Pogba controlling the field in front of him that makes Griezmann’s life much easier.
Then again, even if Pogba turns the World Cup into a showcase, even if France make a run to the final, even if they win it, it will only set the expectations too high on Pogba once again. For some fans, the world is simply not enough.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster