The day started, for Graeme Souness, just like any other. He does not sleep, he waits, sitting in an armchair located in the corner of a darkened room. He rises at the first chorus of chirps from outside, opens the curtains, screws every light bulb in the house back in, and begins to feast on the broken bodies of his former midfield opponents. As he tucks into the thigh of Iosif Rotariu – not for the first time – he prepares to survey the aftermath of his latest attempts at gaslighting Paul Pogba.
‘If I’m sitting in Manchester United’s dressing room today, I’m glad Romelu Lukaku has gone and don’t want Paul Pogba in there with me either if he’s not up for the fight ahead and is also keen to get away,’ the Scot wrote in the Sunday Times. ‘They’re as responsible as anybody for the predicament United are in, yet have effectively said to their teammates: “It’s everybody else’s fault.”‘
Forget putting words into someone else’s mouth; Souness has resorted to appropriating Pogba’s entire consciousness. The only possible explanation for a World Cup winner seeking to leave England’s sixth-best Europa-League bound team for “a new challenge” in the Champions League under the management of a player he idolised is that he blames everyone but himself for collective underachievement last season. That’s definitely it.
The day ended, for Souness, as many have before and will again: with a dessert of humble pie. Against Chelsea, Pogba hardly looked like he was “not up for the fight ahead” and was only “keen to get away” from incessant questions over his future.
The Frenchman would have been forgiven for assembling an extensive legal team to watch the entirety of Sky Sports’ coverage on Sunday, with a panel including Souness and Jose Mourinho promising more pithy putdowns and character assassinations than an EastEnders Christmas script. A resounding 4-0 victory ensured that was never necessary.
This was no perfect display; nor was United’s overall. Pogba created almost as many chances (4) as the rest of his teammates combined (5), but was dispossessed more often (5) than anyone else for either side. He had the most touches of any United player (84), and twice as many instances of poor control (6). His remarkable range of passing, bursts of pace and power and sublime skill encapsulated United at their swashbuckling, counter-attacking, incisive best. His over-confidence, naivety and positional indiscipline was a microcosm of an immature side at its absolute, foot-shooting worst.
For every sensational pass directly into the onrushing Marcus Rashford’s path in the 67th minute, there was an infuriating pirouette in his own half to barely escape the attention of two opponents within the opening five. For every irrepressible run to instantly turn defence into attack to assist Daniel James, there was a gratuitous backheel on the halfway line under pressure from Tammy Abraham to turn attack into defence with the scores still level.
Yet, to call these actions unnecessary or pointless is to ignore the very essence of Pogba. To implore him to “keep it simple” and “focus on the basics” is to misunderstand what he offers. A “simple” pass would never have reached Rashford for the third goal. A “basic” run would not have found James for the fourth. Those buzzwords should be saved for the more limited but reliable Scott McTominay, not the player he is there to enable.
Pogba’s price tag gives the illusion of a player who can – or must – control and dictate any given game at all times; his skill set enables him do the opposite. Pogba exerts authority not through metronomic passing over 90 minutes, but showmanship and theatre in 90-second spurts. He flits in and out of games: a spotlight that flickers brightly around the stage instead of staying fixed in one position.
And United absolutely cannot shine without him, not in their current state. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has built a squad with “pace and power” as its focal point. By investing in half a new defence and trading the bulk of Romelu Lukaku for the speed and movement of James, the manager has improved his midfield precisely by ignoring it. Had Bruno Fernandes signed in the summer, shooting on sight would have taken precedence over blistering counter-attacks. Were Sean Longstaff to have joined, the meticulous balance between the basics and the brilliant would have been affected. Pogba would have been wasted.
He is United’s best player, and they have rather sensibly sought to enhance his best attribute. “I do not see another midfielder in the Premier League that can play the pass he did for United’s third goal,” said Phil Neville, taking a moment to look up from his red-tinted glasses. But the point stands: Pogba is a remarkable passer, not a regular passer. United would be foolish not to base their game around that.
It will never be enough for some. That he could be described as ‘abysmal’ and ‘world-class’ on the basis of the same game sums up the polarising nature of his style. Those expecting him to emulate the rhythmic Paul Scholes or imperious Roy Keane ought to remember there are many different forms of central midfielder.
‘It’s the range of his abilities, rather than the degree,’ Ken Early once wrote of Steven Gerrard. ‘There are stronger, quicker players and more clever, skilful ones, but few combine physical and technical excellence like Gerrard. It might have been easier if he’d had a more conventional blend of qualities; he might not have had to spend so long figuring out what kind of player he was meant to be.’
The same stands for Pogba – except he knows precisely ‘what kind of player he was meant to be’, while everyone else is still trying to figure out what they want him to be.
As it is, Sunday proved that he will let his feet do the talking and his mouth do the balking. His post-match comment that “we remain still on this big question mark” over his United future was predictably taken out of context to further labour the suggestion of a player who wants to leave and has to promise he won’t kick up a fuss. The reality is that Pogba knows he is staying for at least another season and looks as determined as ever to make it a success.
Whether he wins over the perennial doubters is another thing. When Souness can freely claim that Real Madrid ‘are looking to nick Pogba on the cheap because they’re suspicious of his form for United’. it hardly seems like a battle worth fighting. The one ‘suspicious’ thing about Pogba’s form is that he might be the only player for whom two assists is seen by some as an exception to his excellence rather than an example.