This article is coming at an inopportune moment after Claudio Marchisio injured himself at the very end of Thursday's match against Fiorentina. Depending on how severe that injury is, Antonio Conte will likely be forced to start Paul Pogba for the foreseeable future.
With that said, Conte needs to sit the young Frenchman down for a while once it becomes convenient. Not permanently, but long enough to give him a good long break.
Already considered one of the most promising young midfielders in the world after last season, Pogba started the 2013-14 season behind Marchisio on the depth chart but quickly surged past his teammate when the Italian was injured 20 minutes into the Supercoppa Italiana in August. It was a situation that invoked thoughts of Wally Pipp.
For those of you not well-versed in baseball, Wally Pipp played first base for the New York Yankees for ten years between 1915 and 1925 before a minor injury saw him removed from the lineup. His replacement that day, a young player named Lou Gehrig, went on to play 2,130 consecutive games as the Yankees' starting first baseman, and Pipp was traded the following year.
Since that injury, Marchisio, a mainstay in the Juve midfield, was relegated to the bench as Pogba flourished. It was an entirely justifiable move. Pogba was simply playing too well to keep him on the bench.
That may no longer be the case.
In the last few weeks Pogba has been decreasingly effective. The drop in form can be traced back about three weeks, to the first leg of the Europa League round of 32 against Trabzonspor.
In five starts between Serie A and the Europa League, his passing accuracy—at 82.6 percent through all competitions according to WhoScored.com—has dropped to 76. In his six total appearances he has taken 13 shots but hit the target with only three of them.
Beyond the raw statistics, for the last few weeks Pogba has simply looked bad. He's been dispossessed nine times in his last six games and given the ball away on passes that are either mishit or ill-advised. He has always been somewhat fixated on the glory ball in the final third, but now his passing in general just seems wayward.
The killer edge he showed in scoring six times in the league this season has vanished. Several gilt-edged chances have gone begging—including Thursday when he was put clean through on goal moments after Mario Gomez's equalizer but bent the ball the wrong side of the post.
What's caused this dip in form? It may be that the transfer rumors that have dogged him since early in the season are getting into his head. According to Sky Sports, Beppe Marotta said on Monday that Pogba would be staying put, and the same Sky article quoted his agent, Mino Raiola, saying that his charge has no interest in leaving the team. Still, teams like Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are circling, and Pogba could command as much as €60 million—or even more.
It may be that all the talk is getting into his head. It would certainly explain the laxity of his passes and his general inability to impose his will on a match as he had earlier in the year.
The other possible explanation is fatigue.
This is the first season in which Pogba—still only 20 years old—has had to endure the rigors of being a starting XI player on a team that is playing a European schedule. He could be starting to burn out the way Stephan El Shaarawy did a season ago at AC Milan. Tired legs would certainly explain some of the ineffectual performances he's turned in the last few weeks.
Does Antonio Conte need to sit Paul Pogba?
Whatever the reason, it would behoove Conte to let him ride the subs bench for a few weeks to recharge his batteries and clear his head. With the Europa League final beckoning at their own ground and the teeth of the competition coming up (provided they can get past the Viola next week), it's vital to have Pogba at the top of his game as Juve chases the mini-double.
Depending on the severity of Marchisio's injury and his availability to play, Conte should do this sooner rather than later.