Being the most expensive footballer in the world is a particularly sharp double-edged sword.
On the one hand, Paul Pogba is now rich beyond his wildest dreams. He has more money than he ever could have dreamed of when growing up in Lagny-sur-Marne, a downtrodden eastern suburb of Paris, and is playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Yet the expectations are always likely to be nigh-on impossible to fulfil.
Over time, with ever-increasing transfer fees, this price-tag won’t look so big. Or so Manchester United hope.
But in the short-term if he is to keep the critics of his back then he needs to perform at an elite level or at least something very close.
The Old Trafford club’s best performance this season was the 3-1 opening-day victory at Bournemouth, a game that Pogba didn’t even play in. He debuted against Southampton in a win but since then performances and results have been on the decline.
Warning signs were there when Jose Mourinho’s men only snuck by Hull with a last-gasp winner. Since then it’s been three defeats and the spotlight has flitted between the Special One himself, record signing Pogba and skipper Wayne Rooney as observers and fans look to apportion blame.
Pogba has played the majority of his time as a United player with Marouane Fellaini alongside him. As mute-turned-headline-spitter Paul Scholes pointed out after Thursday’s debacle in Rotterdam, he needs more help.
“At Juventus he played in a three in midfield and he was sensational. He played in a two with France in the summer and wasn’t great. He has played in a two so far this season and hasn’t been great.
“What I would say is that he is the only one who has been trying something. The other night (vs Feyenoord) wasn’t his best performance but he was the one player giving everything and the one player wanting to create something.
“We want to see the Juventus Paul Pogba. He played in a brilliant football team there with loads of experience around him, not just at the back but in midfield as well.
“To get the best out of him, I think you have to play him in the three.”
Jose Mourinho would no doubt argue that he has played the Frenchman in a three.
Above are the heatmaps from the two victories that Pogba has played in this season. Note how the 23-year-old is busier in advanced areas and particularly the left-centre channel or penalty area.
With Fellaini alongside him, Pogba could gallop forward but left the Belgian alone patrolling the centre of the park. That’s fine against some of the Premier League’s lesser lights but Manchester City flooded that zone with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva and the results were predictably fairly messy.
Watford, as above, forced him into wider, less dangerous positions and he barely had a sniff in or around the penalty area. Against Feyenoord, worryingly, he had much more of the ball in his own half than in opposition territory.
Pogba’s major strength at Juve was picking up the ball in the midfield third and carrying it into attacking positions. His statistics stood head and shoulders above everyone else in Europe’s top leagues when it came to dribbling the ball into dangerous areas over the last few years and that’s what made him such an unstoppable force.
Look at evidence of his time with Juve (below) and you will see how much time he spent on the ball in dangerous, attacking areas – something far easier to do when you have a player alongside and behind you.
But to allow him to do this he needs reliable cover alongside or behind him, which probably isn’t how you’d describe Fellaini, and ideally just green grass ahead of him.
Pogba has Wayne Rooney standing in that green grass.
The elephant in the Roon for both club and country now with his performances continuing to nosedive and no sign of him being dropped.
The issue with Rooney is that he is the captain of both England and United but forces his team to play in a way that suits nobody.
After Sam Allardyce’s embarrassing comments about not being able to tell Rooney where to play (you’re his manager, Sam) the reality is that the 31-year-old playing as a number 10 doesn’t suit United.
It stifles what Paul Pogba wants to do behind him and it prevents Zlatan Ibrahimovic from dropping into the areas where he is most effective during build-up, all the while failing to create anything himself.
In short, he’s ruining everything.
There could be reasonable questions asked as to why a €100million signing needs such specific conditions to succeed. Is his inability to adapt to different situations a concern?
It was certainly criticised in France this summer when he struggled to make an impact on the right of a midfield triangle and had to be moved to the left – where he’d so often shone for the Old Lady.
As Alex Richards noted from Rotterdam this week:
“At Juventus, Pogba would feature in a central trio under Max Allegri – whether in a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-1-2, where he would work box-to-box to the left of centre. Alongside him he would have a central anchor – be it Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio or another – and someone further to the right who acted very much as the yin to his yang.
“With United, as with Les Bleus, Pogba is currently being compartmentalised, either as an attacking player or a defensive one. If Mourinho is to both balance his midfield and get the best out of the 23-year-old, he needs to afford him a similar amount of freedom as Allegri did previously – and that increasingly looks like changing the shape of his midfield.”
So it’s up to Jose Mourinho now.
The Special One has decisions to make and what he chooses to do will likely go a long way to deciding how his first season at Old Trafford turns out.
With Pogba heading into his prime and Rooney long out the other side of his, the obvious choice is to build this team in a way that will get the best out of the 22-year-old.
But Jose hasn’t always gone for the obvious. And the double-edged sword of Pogba’s price tag could see some heads roll before too long.