Paul Pogba has looked an isolated figure at Manchester United this season. His performances have been poor and his relationship with Jose Mourinho is said to have hit rock-bottom.
Mourinho decided to field Pogba in the starting 11 on Wednesday night against Valencia after dropping him in the last two league games. With Manchester United already in the last 16, the pressure was off and Pogba had the opportunity to make his mark on the game.
However, the Frenchman was average again. A tactical analysis of his performance based on statistics will show the flaccid nature of his performance. He was neither doing much in attack nor provided any defensive nous in midfield. It was the kind of performance that justifies Mourinho’s frustration with him.
The first half horror show: Paul Pogba played his part
Manchester United’s first-half performance was straight from a European nightmare. Mourinho’s side were lucky not to concede more than just one goal as Valencia squandered opportunities.
The static Manchester United midfield allowed the home side to play around them. Fellaini struggled to deal with the movement and Fred looked clueless during his stay on the pitch. But Pogba’s performance was frustrating at best. His languid style looks good when the team are playing well. But when the whole side screams average, it seems indulgent.
The Frenchman didn’t track any of the runners and never was aggressive enough while closing down Valencia players. It won’t be too harsh if I say that it was a half-hearted performance.
His defensive contribution in the entire game was one solitary interception. As one of the three midfielders on an away night in Europe, Pogba didn’t win any of his attempted tackles. He also didn’t commit a foul, which kind of shows how many tackles he actually attempted. It was a shocking defensive performance from a midfielder playing for one of the big European clubs. The Frenchman was everything his critics term him to be: lazy on the pitch, distracted and defensively naïve.
Paul Pogba shines in the final third: But where was he?
Pogba is more of a contributor in attack. However, he didn’t do much at the other end of the pitch. His attacking performance was marked by a glaring miss in the first half. Fellaini’s header found the Frenchman two yards from goal. But Pogba found a way not to hit the target with his strike. It would have been an undeserved equaliser but could have been a huge moment in the game. When Manchester United needed their star man to keep his head, he couldn’t.
He made two key passes in the offensive phase and had three shots on goal. But the Frenchman’s effect was muted. Pogba was also dispossessed twice and had five unsuccessful touches. The midfielder didn’t get any help from the lack of movement up front but he was also pretty wasteful. Marcus Rashford’s introduction added impetus to the attack. But the Frenchman struggled to use his willing team-mate’s pace. In attack, it was a middling performance. He attempted a few things and showed glimpses of undoubted talent and vision. But the France international also failed to provide the much-needed verve from midfield.
A lack of intensity and verve
Pogba’s 93 touches were the most for any Manchester United player on Wednesday night. The play went through him but his heat-map clearly suggests that most of his play was limited to the midfield third. He looks brilliant when he is running at the defence with the ball from the middle of the park. There was way too little of that on display against Valencia.
There was little of his quick one-touch passing or his ability to shift play with the long diagonals. He lacked intensity, pace or even the courage to try things. Pogba almost seemed stunted on the pitch. How much of it is down to the manager and how much it is on him remains debatable. But if there’s a definition of downing tools, Pogba’s performance at the Mestalla was exactly that.
Will he start against Liverpool?
It seems hard to envisage Mourinho will start Pogba at Anfield. The Frenchman’s performance against Valencia doesn’t merit a starting eleven berth on Sunday. The intensity of the Liverpool midfield means Manchester United cannot afford to carry passengers.
However, the Frenchman should be one of the first names on the team sheet in such big games. His ability to run with the ball and his star qualities should shine in such big games. But other than a second-half showing against Manchester City last season at the Etihad, Pogba has rarely performed in a big game.
The low block is set to return on Sunday when Jose Mourinho will invariably employ more defensive tactics. There’s an argument to field Pogba in a more advanced role. But did the Frenchman do enough against Valencia? The one word answer is ‘no’, and that’s a shame.
The elite players take pride in their performance regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes. David Beckham produced one of the performances of his career against Real Madrid on the backdrop of a major falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson. Pogba has the ability to be absolutely the best in the world. But he isn’t doing what the best players do: leave everything on the pitch.
The Frenchman has legitimate complaints about the way Mourinho has been setting up his team. Another manager could get the best out of him. But there’s no excuse for the Frenchman to not take pride in his performance. Even his biggest fans would agree that he didn’t cover himself in glory at the Mestalla. The lack of effort, intensity, and courage was a sign of a player who didn’t want to be on the pitch. He still has the support of a large section of the Manchester United fans. But a growing minority of them are thinking, “What’s the fuss about Pogba?”
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