Why does the neutral tune in to a football match in which they have no vested interest?
For the love of the game? To see their rivals falter? Pure boredom?
Perhaps. But for many, it’s the mere chance of witnessing a world-class player do something…world class, provoking brief moments of unadulterated joy accompanied by ooohs, aaahs and oiiis.
That is why the neutral tunes in to watch Paul Labile Pogba.
In a world where performative attacking midfielders such Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane are a dying breed, the languid Frenchman is one of the few elite-level footballers in the modern era’s whose raison d’etre remains to entertain, not just score, assist, defend and be an athlete at his peak.
The rolls of the foot over the ball, the pirouettes, the no-look passes, the nonchalant diagonals, the elaborate turns, the step-overs, the dummies; all largely unnecessary, but a joy to behold.
He may not be the purist’s cup of tea, but for many he represents football in its purest form – a man who is adept at using his feet to provide moments of genius, to the glee of millions.
But something has changed. Pogba seems to be losing his sense of adventure, chastened by some invisible force that’s stopping him reaching the imperious attacking heights we all know he is capable of.
It’s even reflected in the stats. Someone much smarter than I has collated the number of ‘progressive ball carries’ – the bread and butter of a box-to-box midfielder – Pogba has made in recent seasons, and held it up against some of the best players in the world in that position.
There it is in black and white (or blue and white); Paul Pogba has gradually lost his forward thrust at Manchester United, which has likely contributed to his goal contributions tumbling from 15 in 2016/17, 18 in 2017/18 and 27 in 2018/19 to a measly five last season – although injuries restricted him to just 22 appearances.
So what’s behind that dramatic downturn?
Could it be a lovably inept stop-gap manager who doesn’t know how to get the best out of him and is purely keeping the Old Trafford hot seat warm for a certain Argentine? Not for me to say.
However, where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has elected to play the no.6 in his midfield has certainly had an impact – the recession in his attacking economy coincides with a shift to a deeper role, which is thanks in no small part to the arrival of the effervescent Bruno Fernandes.
While perhaps not as easy on the eye, the January signing is world class in the modern sense – ruthlessly efficient and direct – and it is bewildering that United and the rest of Europe’s elite slept on him for so long. But the red side of Manchester ain’t big enough for two world-class attacking midfielders.
Fernandes’ remarkable form has cast Pogba into the shadows, initially deeper into midfield and now onto the bench, and despite the Frenchman’s popularity among supporters, it feels a watershed has been reached and the club’s hierarchy might actually consider paying attention to the coos of touted suitors Real Madrid and former club Juventus.
For football lovers, it would be for the best. It is almost impossible to imagine Pogba playing in a shackled deep-lying role under either Zinedine Zidane or Andrea Pirlo – two coaches who know him so well. Indeed, in his national colours Pogba is often a different beast, given the freedom of the park by Didiers Deschamps, who has been his only coach since he made his France debut seven years ago.
While adidas market Pogba as having the thickest skin in football, the relentless and often vitriolic and discriminatory criticism of the Frenchman has surely taken its toll on his confidence, perhaps reflected in the midfielder becoming more risk averse for fear of the wrath of pundits and Twitter trolls.
While the Graeme Souness-led Pogba bashers had been somewhat muted following the Frenchman’s stellar World Cup in 2018, the murmurs have grown in volume once again this season – including (for some reason) from the top brass in journalism.
Five years in to his second stint at Old Trafford following his then-record move from Turin, it feels the transfer is toeing the line between success and failure. Now 27 and often hampered by niggling injuries, Pogba will be acutely aware that he should now be at his peak, and that his time to play at the highest level elsewhere is beginning to tick down.
Left out of Solskjaer’s starting XI for three consecutive matches, the superstar faces a momentous couple of months both mentally and physically on the pitch; can he play his way back into form and in turn the starting XI, or is it time to prepare for a new challenge?
The latter is surely becoming increasingly more appealing.
For the neutral, the hope is simply that – wherever he may be – Paul Pogba is back to his strutting best sooner rather than later. He has all the potential and personality to join his esteemed predecessors in becoming revered by football fans the world over for mastering the art of making the game beautiful.
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