Paul Pogba's Battle to Prove He Is Not Football's Most Expensive Flop
Not many people around Old Trafford would describe him that way right now.
He has found himself in a tricky place. Rumours that he is not happy with manager Jose Mourinho's tactics were followed up by a passioned defence from the Special One over any breakdown in their relationship.
One thing we know for sure right now: If Pogba does not turn around his career at Old Trafford soon, then he will become known as the most expensive flop in football.
The truth, according to B/R sources, is that Pogba does want more freedom. He feels stifled and craves the ability to roam. He has always believed in himself as a box-to-box midfielder, but he also feels he has earned the right to decide exactly how he can best influence a game.
At the beginning of this season, we saw Pogba at his best, controlling games and defining the outcomes. But when you are an £89 million star signing, those moments are expected week-in, week-out. And that's exactly what he is aiming for.
No one wants this to work out more than Pogba—so, what has been going wrong?
Studying His Form
Every fan, pundit and analyst in football has an opinion on Pogba, and when he has a bad game, the sharks attack. But Pogba's form over the course of the season has not been bad.
B/R analyst Sam Tighe has Pogba as the fourth-best central midfielder over the course of this season. He's tucked in behind Chelsea's N'Golo Kante and Manchester City pair Fernandinho and David Silva. Not bad company.
The men behind him? Abdoulaye Doucoure—enjoying the season of his life—United's Nemanja Matic and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey. Put into context, there doesn't seem much reason for such panic.
But people always expect better of Pogba—a fact that frustrates French journalist Julien Laurens, who launched a passionate defence of his play.
"My view is people are too harsh with Pogba," he said on Premier League Today. "They want him to pass the ball like [Sergio] Busquets, to score like [Frank] Lampard, to defend like Kante, to create like [Kevin] De Bruyne and to be Pogba on top of that. He can't be all of that."
Pogba has nine assists this season; only Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne have more. That's not too shabby considering he has missed 10 games with suspension and injury.
Graeme Souness is one of those not willing to let him off so lightly, though.
In his Sunday Times column last weekend, Souness explained how he felt Pogba is "a country mile from being a great player" and went as far to say he has an "inability to grasp the responsibility that comes with being a central midfielder."
It's views like these that Pogba is struggling to shake off.
A Dented Ego
"I think Pogba has a big ego. I think players at his level have to have that ego." That's the view of Luca Caioli, biographer of Paul Pogba: The rise of Manchester United's Homecoming Hero.
"You cannot understand the pressure on your shoulders if you don't have that ego," he told me. "And with Mourinho as your manager, you need to have that belief in yourself if you are to be at your best."
Pogba's ego is often described as a flaw in his character, yet without it, he would never have reached this level in his career. Never before has he needed to believe in himself as in this current moment.
A glimpse at his social-media channels shows a man full of exuberance and confidence, but United supporters are not seeing that reflected on the pitch anymore. His smile has disappeared.
As United began to negotiate the signing of Alexis Sanchez in January, an alarm sounded in the head of superagent Mino Raiola. His client was brought in as the star name, and this deal suddenly threatened his status.
Sources close to the situation say Raiola went as far as speaking to United officials to discover how much Sanchez would be earning.
As we now look back at the incredible financial package agreed with Sanchez—his deal is believed to be worth £600,000 per week—it could be that Pogba's neck has been put out of joint. The balance of the team may have been affected too. SI.com's Grant Wahl has even reported Raiola is looking for escape routes.
His display in the defeat to Newcastle was poor, and as he sat on the bench, Gary Neville commented on Sky Sports: "He looks like he's about to cry."
Mourinho was furious after United were beaten 1-0 at St James' Park, and Pogba was one of the men to feel his wrath in a post-match dressing down. Sources claim he told Pogba he had been "too careless" in possession.
Such criticism hurts any player, particularly one worth £89 million, and Mourinho's frustration only seemed to deepen in the days that followed. Pogba was suddenly made unavailable for United's FA Cup encounter with Huddersfield Town last weekend due to illness.
Pogba was back in action in the Champions League on Wednesday night but only as a substitute. He was given a reprieve in the first half as Ander Herrera was replaced due to injury.
The Frenchman believes he would be better as part of a three-man midfield but didn't manage to make his mark in Seville on a night when the entire United team were off-colour. Pogba is not the only player out of sorts right now, and Mourinho seems to be holding back the side's attacking potential.
Last year, I spoke to Italian football expert Luca Pasquaretta about what we should be expecting from him. He watched Pogba closely at Juventus, while working as a journalist for Il Messaggero, and spoke of him as a luxury player.
"He isn't capable of playing every role in midfield," he said. "He's an inside midfielder. Juve got the bargain in cashing in for all that money, not Manchester United, who bought a good player—not a top player."
Wanted in Madrid
There have been suggestions that Pogba regrets his decision to join United instead of Real Madrid. I am told that is not the case.
When Pogba returned to Old Trafford, he saw it as the ultimate statement of how well he had progressed in his career, playing so well at Juventus that United—the club who had him in their youth ranks but let him leave—had to pay a world-record fee to get him back.
"I left United, but part of my heart was still here," he told Thierry Henry for Sky Sports after returning to Manchester.
The Real Madrid links have suddenly returned as Pogba attempts to recover from his dip in form. United correspondent Neil Custis of The Sun reports the Spanish giants are lining up a move and that they would have to pay over £120 million for his services.
Real have a history of finding a home for luxury players, but contacts I have spoken to claim United's board are adamant the switch won't be happening anyway.
The club believe selling him would be a huge gamble, as there would be a high chance he would go on to big things at his next club. It's not a risk they are looking to take.
Winning over Mourinho
Let's not all have such short memories when it comes to Pogba. One month ago the Manchester Evening News' Samuel Luckhurst described Pogba's display in a 3-0 win over Stoke City as follows: "Another midfield masterclass from the Frenchman. Assisted both first-half goals with brilliant pieces of individual genius which took the game beyond Stoke's reach. 8."
After the game itself, Pogba delivered a message of his own to Sky Sports. "I had freedom to go forward, and it suits me. I can use more of my ability, go forward with my power, and make an assist or shot. It suits me more, I would say."
Not much was made of it at the time because he was playing well. Looking back, maybe he wanted to get that public message out before his quality was next questioned.
To guess how this story will end depends largely on which source you speak to.
It appears true that Raiola is irritated and would be willing to move him on, but unless this situation unravels further, it is not going to happen. Pogba wants to make this move work, and despite his recent decision-making, so does Mourinho.
Remember, too, he'd be hard to replace in the next transfer window. There is a World Cup as well as the fact the deadline is weeks earlier than in previous years.
Figures close to the player say Pogba is adamant he'll turn this around, so he has to now win over Mourinho. We have seen big-name players left in the cold or heading for the exit after falling out of favour with Mourinho in the past—think Juan Mata or Kevin De Bruyne at Chelsea, Iker Casillas at Real Madrid. He doesn't care what your name is, he will move on without you.
The player has taken criticism to heart but is determined not to become Mourinho's next big-name victim.
Don't write Pogba off just yet. By the end of the season, he may have become United's leading icon after all.