When Paul Pogba and his Manchester United teammates were lifting the Europa Leauge trophy aloft last week, few people seemed as genuinely apoplectic as Graeme Souness.
The TV3 pundit had just watched the Premier League side brush aside a somewhat listless Ajax side, and yet he was like a dog with a bone regarding his criticism of Pogba, as he had been doing whenever he got a chance over the course of the season.
“I don’t see him this season changing any of the big games because of the ‘brilliance’ he’s shown.
“He does eye-catching stuff, which with all due respect to people who don’t understand the game so well, (they) go ‘wow, wasn’t that great play?’
“What I see as a midfield player, an old midfield player, is someone that’s not really got a great understanding of the game… I’ve never seen him run a game.”
When it was put to him by host Tommy Martin that Pogba, an important midfielder in four-time Serie A winners and Champions League finalists Juventus, could at least be capable of controlling a game, Souness again answered emphatically in the negative.
This has been the narrative from Souness towards Pogba from the get-go, and nothing is going to change his mind now. Why would it, when the French international is, to play devil’s advocate, the antithesis of everything he stood for as a player and continues to expect from a footballer?
Not to suggest that Pogba turned in a display against Ajax that would make Diego Maradona blush, and for that he can thank his conservative manager, but to single him out for individual criticism just seems like the work of a man with an agenda.
And yet this a common issue with one Pogba, and one that, truth be told, he has contributed to himself. Souness’ harsh words are not towards Pogba as a player, but as a marketing tool.
The circus surrounding him began towards the end of the 2015/16 season and was in full throttle for months afterwards. Teasing Instagram posts from the player himself with his agent Mino Raiola in Miami, five or six different news stories probably leaked by every relevant party on an almost daily basis, Adidas preparing a giant tub for all of that sweet, sweet merchandising income – all culminating in a ridiculous “comeback” video with Stormzy and all the tawdry fireworks one would expect at a 12.30 a.m. announcement to capitalise on the Asian and American markets.
The carnival didn’t stop there either. Pogba has been milked like a lucrative cash cow for the entire season, but it really reached its nadir in January. With Man United due to play Liverpool at the weekend, the club thought that the buildup to a fixture that absolutely didn’t need anything extra would be the perfect time to launch the Paul Pogba emoji.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 14, 2017
Needless to say, he became a target for abuse and general schadenfreude throughout the match – and he did not disappoint those willing him to have a shocker either, giving away a penalty in the opening half-hour and possibly counting himself lucky to avoid being sent off.
This, right here, is part of the problem. The advertising boards continued to flash up with the word #POGBA in regular intervals, but as the match wore on it became a reminder to the Liverpool fans, and indeed the watching public on social media, to belittle and pour more scorn on Pogba.
He became a target, and there was absolutely no need for his club to put that extra pressure on him, nor was there any need to do it during one of the biggest matches of the team’s season.
— ⚽ (@10_cule_) January 15, 2017
In many ways, it could be argued that Pogba has had the last laugh on Souness and others that wish to put him down – he, of course, has ended the season with two trophies and Man United will be back in the Champions League next season.
And yet the doubt will remain, but it has very little to do with him as a footballer. Granted, he wasn’t Man United’s best player this season, but neither was he the thundering disaster that many are so desperate to portray him as. Souness’s assertion that he is basically a nothing player, both at Old Trafford and at Juventus, comes off as spectacularly mean-spirited every time he brings it up. It’s not as if he went from England to Turin initially with a reputation of a world beater that had to be played regardless.
He cemented his place in that team on merit, nothing more or less. Would Antonio Conte or Max Allegri have put up with an ineffectual passenger in their midfields for four years? Would Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio or Arturo Vidal have accepted mediocrity in a midfield partner? Of course they wouldn’t have.
Pogba is not a bad player, nor is he even a mediocre player. He is a supremely gifted and talented player on the cusp of becoming world class. He is not the finished article, and there are some areas of his game where he still needs to work on but the talent and potential are definitely there.
Controlling a game is a strange concept. Players can play well without being the driving force of a team’s victory, they can contribute heavily without being the sole reason for a win. Just because he’s not banging one in from 30 yards every game doesn’t mean he’s not contributing. As for the price tag, there’s no point in dwelling on that anymore. Man United could buy five Pogbas before lunch and not break a sweat; money in football means nothing in the real world so let’s stop pretending otherwise.
And that, essentially, is what it has to come down to. This is about a 24-yeat-old’s ascension to the top of his game, the rest is just a distraction. The peacocking, the world transfer fee, the emoji, the Stormzy, it all just adds to the desire from the likes of Souness to see him fail, and it’s why he will struggle, in the short-term at least, to get the respect that he deserves.
It won’t happen, because the sponsors and endorsers need their money, but the best thing for Pogba’s development would be to leave him alone and just let him play.