The simple question about Paul Pogba occurred again on Tuesday night, watching him set out against Germany with that beguiling blend of skill, passing and inventiveness in one of the best individual performances so far in Euro 2020. What kind of footballer is he?
Against Germany, Pogba felt once more like one of the great skilful improvisors – a great passer, a willing experimenter in the high-skill intricacies that are the game’s hardest part, even a player interested in striking the ball a different way to produce flat, fizzing diagonals. His profile was that of the stand-out risky funster. Less self-indulgent than Neymar but certainly comparable with Jack Grealish or Eden Hazard. Slowing it down or speeding it up, and generally left to their own devices.
Pogba is that player – he just happens to have the physique of a defensive midfielder, which naturally invites assumptions about the type of performance that should be forthcoming. His size is helpful to him in protecting the ball in close contact while he decides what next to do with it, but it by no means defines him. What defines him are the risks he takes and the influence on the game that flows from them. For France he operates as a creative presence: unpredictable, sometimes frustrating, but capable of conjuring up big moments.
He is not a midfield general at all in the conventional sense. Even at his best, Pogba has always been a player where a bad moment – a skied shot, or a pass to nowhere – can appear suddenly, incongruously, amid a sequence of inspired interventions. That tendency does not diminish with France either, other than to say he gets back on the proverbial horse much sooner and tries again.
Back in the ITV studio, Roy Keane struggled to reconcile this version of Pogba to the much less influential figure he knew from United. He ruminated on the difference made by playing alongside N’Golo Kante and, indeed, France are a much more dominant side than the one who pay Pogba’s wages. Keane was right that Pogba’s five years at Old Trafford have been riven with inconsistency. It is simply that France are better equipped to accommodate the occasions when it goes wrong in Pogba’s game. He needs that leeway to attempt all the good bits, like the ball out to Theo Hernandez that created the game’s only goal.
Two Paul Pogbas: He is a world beater for France despite patchy club form
Five years at Old Trafford have proved beyond doubt that Pogba is not the inheritor to the mantle of great United central midfielders – the tradition of Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Keane, even Paul Scholes. On nights like the one in Munich, he is much closer to Eric Cantona, a player who did lots of things differently, and some in spectacular style, but would never be expected to run the game in the usual way.
The contrast from the performance data for club and country is stark, down to the positions Pogba most often takes up for France and for United. The accompanying tables demonstrate that for France against Germany he was most commonly on the right side and in front of his own goal. He barely touched the left side, where United tend to deploy him. It is not simply the case that he spent more time in attacking positions for France – indeed the opposite was the case. For France, he spent 59 per cent of the time in his own half. At United over the course of the Premier League season he spent 55 per cent of his time in the opposition half.
Even so, the difference in outcomes is startling. Over 42 games for United in 2020-21, contrasted with his nine France appearances since September, Pogba’s average output per game is better for his country in almost every category. His six goals and six assists for United over the period as opposed to none for France is the only meaningful category in which he performs better for his club – and even those returns could hardly be said to be a triumph over the course of a season.
Over 90 minutes, he averages better output for France in terms of passes, shots, tackles, interceptions and recoveries. He wins the ball in the final third more often for his country and he passes the ball into the penalty box more frequently. He created more chances on average for United but his expected goals and expected assists, the metric which measures the quality of certain chances, was higher when playing for his country.
He makes mistakes with France, too, because that is the nature of the way he plays – although it appears to be a compromise that Didier Deschamps has made his peace with. Pogba is erratic, even on his best days. Which is not to say that United have not tried with him. They made him their best paid player for a period and when he is fit, he is selected. In a clear illustration of where the power lies, Pogba outlasted Jose Mourinho and there will most likely be the offer of a new contract in the next few months.
Unfortunately for United, there can be no doubt that he has not delivered the uplift they hoped he would bring as a once-in-a-generation signing, comparable to Robson, Cantona, Keane or Wayne Rooney. In that respect the responsibility falls on both sides. Tuesday showed how effective he can be, as a player whose physique and presence belie a talent that is something different altogether.