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Paul Pogba – flawed genius or wasted talent?

Over the last decade, Paul Pogba has been one of football’s most polarising figures.

Once considered one of the brightest young talents in the world, the Frenchman quickly made a name for himself at Juventus, starring under the tutelage of Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri.

His time in Turin earned him four Serie A titles, two Coppas Italia, a Champions League final appearance, and a spot in the FIFPro World XI.

This prompted Manchester United to fork out a then-record £89 million fee for their former academy graduate. This is when things began to turn sour for the midfielder.

In terms of ability, nobody in the Premier League could match Pogba. However, question marks over his fitness, attitude, and consistency made him a regular subject of debate.

After six years, he left the Red Devils and returned to Juventus on a free transfer, adding just a Carabao Cup and a Europa League to his CV.

And now, less than two years on from his departure from Old Trafford, the 30-year-old has been handed a four-year ban after testing positive for illegal substances.

Pogba maintains his innocence and plans to appeal, but many people believe that the suspension effectively puts an end to his career at the top level.


Make no mistake – Pogba has had a career that most players could only dream of. But with his immense talent, should he have achieved more?

Expectation

When he first broke through, people saw Pogba as a potential Ballon d’Or winner. He quickly established himself in Juventus’ first team, in a star-studded midfield alongside Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio.

The youngster had a profile seldom seen before. He was tall and strong, but not at a hindrance to his mobility. And certainly at no detriment to his technical ability; his ball control was elite, he could put the ball on a sixpence from 50 yards away and he could score goals.

It was as if the perfect midfielder had been designed in a lab. This vast array of attributes drew comparisons to Yaya Toure, who was enjoying his best years in the Premier League with Manchester City at the time.

In that first spell in Italy, he set an astronomically high standard. In those four seasons, Juventus won all four league titles, hitting a record 102 points in 2013/14. Meanwhile, they also got their hands on the Coppa Italia twice and reached a Champions League final.

Pogba was one of the standout players. He featured in Serie A Team of the Year on three consecutive occasions, registered a crucial assist for Alvaro Morata to take his side past Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, and was selected for the FIFPro World XI in 2015 – sharing the stage with the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Neymar.

Reality

Unfortunately, those early days would be the peak of his club career. A world-record transfer to Man Utd kicked off a turbulent six-year spell, in which his name would be uttered every minute by pundits, journalists and fans alike.

This was a statement signing by the 20-time English champions. After three years of mediocrity under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, serial winner Jose Mourinho had been brought in with the promise of taking the club back to the top, and Pogba was set to be the main man.

Throughout his second stint at Old Trafford, the primary task for the manager was to find a way to get the best out of the midfielder.

He was tried as a deep-lying playmaker, as a box-to-box midfielder, as a number ten, and as a left winger. In all of these areas, he produced flashes of quality without being able to consistently make an impression.

This is how Pogba’s career at Man United will ultimately be remembered – several ‘moments’, but an overall sense of frustration. His supporters will point to the brace at the Etihad Stadium, or the four assists against Leeds United, or the stunning volley against Swansea City, while his detractors will wonder why he couldn’t do this more often.

That’s not to say that it was all bad. He was named as the Europa League’s Player of the Season in United’s triumphant 2016/17 campaign and included in the 2018/19 PFA Team of the Year after netting a career-best 13 league goals. And, in general, they often looked like a better side with him on the pitch.

Furthermore, there is an argument to be made that he was not given the right environment to flourish. In the last decade, countless big names have arrived at Old Trafford and have failed to meet expectations.

Have a look at some of the midfielders he shared a pitch with at Man Utd. Ander Herrera, an ageing Juan Mata, an ageing Michael Carrick, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marouane Fellaini, an ageing Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard, Fred, Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira, Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek.

This is not necessarily a bad selection of players, but it pales in comparison to the supporting cast that he had at Juventus.

None of them measure up to the midfielders that have plied their trade at Madrid or Man City over the last decade. Perhaps in a different team, we would have seen the best of Pogba more often.

But that opens several more debates. Could Utd have done more to support him? Almost certainly. Should he have produced more anyway? Probably. Were United let down by Pogba, or was Pogba let down by Utd? That’s a difficult question to answer, but it’s likely a bit of both.

Internationally

Of course, there is one thing we are yet to mention – the World Cup. The crowning achievement of Pogba’s career.

The midfielder didn’t just get his hands on football’s ultimate prize, but he did it as one of France’s star men. He was tremendous throughout the tournament in Russia, most notably scoring in the final and being named Man of the Match.

Even then, it feels like Pogba’s international career doesn’t quite get the credit it deserves. Over the past ten years, there are few who have delivered like he has at major tournaments.

To put this into perspective, his weakest showing on an individual level was at Euro 2016. At the competition, he started six games from a possible seven for a side that finished as runners-up.

At the 2014 World Cup – his first major international tournament appearance – he received the Young Player of the Tournament award, scoring a key goal in the round of 16 against Nigeria.

And at the most recent European Championships, he was one of the top performers. He was, by some distance, Les Bleus’ best player, and was arguably the player of the tournament before his departure. Unfortunately, this was easily forgotten about following France’s surprise early exit.

Four tournaments, four impressive showings. While his club career leaves some question marks, his international performances have been near-perfect.

In many ways, Pogba’s time with France encapsulates the frustration that Man Utd fans may feel towards the midfielder. Under Didier Deschamps, he has been everything he was expected to be at club level – dominant, reliable, and above all, consistent.

The final word

Four league titles, three domestic cups, a Europa League, a World Cup and a FIFPro World XI appearance. For the average footballer, this would be considered a phenomenal career.

To call Pogba a ‘wasted talent’ would be harsh. He still achieved far more than the majority of players will. But that’s not what the conversation is about.

Could he, and should he, have done more? To put it simply, yes.

Ability-wise, Pogba is as good as any midfielder of the last decade. And yet, the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Kevin De Bruyne rank comfortably ahead of him in terms of actual output.

This was the level that he should have been at. He should have been Man United’s De Bruyne. Had he fulfilled his potential, we would view him as one of the greatest midfielders ever to play the sport.

However, how much of this was his fault? When he had world class players around him for Juventus and France, he too was world class. Was it fair to expect him to maintain this level surrounded by relative mediocrity?

Or did he fail to live up to expectations because of his own decisions? Was it down to a lack of application? Did he let his focus slip from what was most important? Was he worth the drama?

The debate over Pogba will continue long after his retirement. Some will look back on him as a supreme talent, a maverick, and a brilliant entertainer who achieved so much. Others will view him as a cautionary tale, a tragic figure, and a disappointment.

Neither of these opinions are necessarily wrong. It all comes down to your perception.

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