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8th November 2016

In Defence of Paul Pogba

Manchester United’s world record signing has been put under a lot of pressure, but here is why you cannot judge him yet

The explosive growth of football in the past two decades has had huge effects on the way the media and fans view the game. Two of the biggest impacts have been money and patience.

You used to be able to pick up ‘world class’ talent for the snip of £30 odd million (see Wayne Rooney). That same amount of money was spent by Tottenham Hotspurs over the summer to pick up Moussa Sissoko. Now, while Sissoko is without doubt a capable footballer, he is not regarded as a ‘cream of the crop’ type player.

Paul Pogba, on the other hand, is. He cost Manchester United a world record £89.25 million, and there seems to be very little patience going around for the young Frenchman.

A key criticism focussed at Pogba has been his price tag and the failure to live up to it. The thing is, nowadays, in buying a footballer you are not just buying what the player is going to give you on the pitch, you are buying a brand.

Manchester United is the most commercial football club in the world, most recently signing off a partnership with Milly, who will now be the club’s global “mattress and pillow partner”. Ridiculous, right? Well, not really.

United have successfully expanded as a corporation in the last three years to ‘world domination’ levels, which is ironic as the football being played at Old Trafford has gone through its worst stint in two decades. United are expected to overtake Real Madrid as the world’s richest football club in this financial year. If United are still growing in such a negative football climate, surely they are doing something right in terms of marketability? Suddenly the deal with Milly does not look so silly.

Anyway, without getting too side-tracked, United were not just buying Pogba’s ability for £89 million, they were also buying a marketable icon who can push the club into a new economic stratosphere. In the first three weeks after the transfer was made official, United’s “Pogba 6” shirt sales made almost £200 million.

While obviously most of that money went to Adidas and not United, that kind of marketability makes the club look very attractive for sponsorship; it is no wonder that Adidas’s kit deal with United is the most expensive in history.

There is also Pogba’s personality which is expensive. The confident, outgoing and humorous Frenchman knows how to run his self-image on social media and is one of the most influential footballers, in that aspect, in England.

His mocking videos with Zlatan Ibrahimović and Jessie Lingard draw particular attention from youthful fans and, again, increase his and United’s market value.

Mino Raiola also had a very important role in the transfer price, as you would expect from one of the most infamous football agents.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Raiola hinted at receiving a fee in relation to third-party ownership (which was banned in 2015) of Pogba. According to the Mail Online, this fee could have been up to £20 million, although it is not certain if this was paid by United or Juventus.

Buying a player in the modern football environment is not simple. Therefore, when your classic football cynic turns around after Pogba misplaces a pass and mumbles, “well that was not worth £89 million”, you can look at him in dismay, shake your head and list the above reasons. Alternatively, if you want to keep your social life, you can growl at the TV and shake your fist at the absurdity of modern football.

Investment in footballers, like in a car or a fancy jacket, is about long-term quality.

If your car decided to disintegrate after a quick trip to the shops, or your jacket caught fire after wearing it to the pub once, you would not be a happy bunny. The same can be said for footballers. Juan Mata cost Manchester United £38 million in the January of 2014. If you had asked a United fan if he had been worth it six months later, the simple answer would probably be ‘no’.

However, fast forward to present time and Mata has sufficiently paid off his debt to the club: two beautiful goals against Liverpool in Steven Gerrard’s last ever game against United (famously known as “Juanfield”), an equaliser against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup Final which the Reds went on to win and, most recently, a goal to knock City out of the EPL Cup add up to more than enough goodwill to justify his fee.

Pogba, likewise, if assessed now, is not worth what United have paid for him. Only time will tell if the Frenchman was worth the record transfer and so patience must be preserved if a logical judgement is to be made.

The fee United paid for Pogba’s on-the-pitch-footballing value is probably closer to the £50 million mark. With that, if you compare Pogba’s stats for the season so far to those who have been praised for being in good form (in this case, I chose Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho, Mesut Ozil and Kevin De Bruyne), you will find that the Frenchman is not too far behind the best creators in the league.

Per game, Pogba is fourth (out of the five) in key passes and chances created and third for successful take ons. The Frenchman has also played the most accurate through balls in the entire league. What makes those stats even more impressive is the fact that Pogba starts much deeper in midfield than any of the comparative players. Because of this deeper position, Pogba also has to produce a defensive display, and he comfortably beats Hazard, Coutinho, Ozil and De Bruyne in interceptions, tackles and clearances.

Now, if you think those defensive comparisons are unfair because that is not the comparative players’ roles, let us parallel Pogba with N’Golo Kanté, Jordan Henderson, Francis Coquelin and Fernandinho.

Per game, the United player is last when it comes to interceptions but has won the fourth most tackles and the most aerial duels by a distance.

These comparative players, like the attackers, have all been individually praised for their good form this season. It seems baffling, therefore, to slate Pogba for ‘not being up to the task’ when he is doing two players’ jobs in one, and still keeping up stats with some of the best in the league.

Enough of the stats. Pogba’s performances against Manchester City and Burnley at the end of October alone should be enough to illustrate how good a player he is. Only a fantastic Willy Caballero save could stop the Frenchman from scoring against the ‘noisy neighbours’ and Pogba should have had at least three assists from the Burnley game, if it were not for Ibrahimović’s woeful finishing.

Pogba’s two goals against Fenerbahçe at Old Trafford were written off because they were in the Europa League but the second, in particular was, a strike fitting of Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale.

Pogba has the talent, and at the tender age of 23, the Frenchman is only going to get better in the next five years. If anything, it is United who are doing their world record transfer a disservice, rather than the other way around.

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