There was one Manchester united midfielder who had everybody raving despite the 1-0 home loss to Barcelona last Wednesday, and Jose Mourinho could have been forgiven for having a wry smile about that player’s identity.
Paul Pogba, the man who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has insisted for some time that he would always look to build his team around, was outplayed by Scott McTominay.
It was the young Scotland international’s second Champion League appearance all season, the other coming in Pogba’s absence through suspension as United did the impossible away to PSG after he had been sent-off in a home leg defeat during which he frustrated rather than starred.
In defence of Pogba, his under-performance against Barca last week was somewhat exaggerated. Six of the Catalans’ 11 fouls in the match were perpetrated against a clearly marked man, while – as Solskjaer rightly caveated later – the midfielder’s running stats were as high as they’ve been in the past three years.
“He had his highest-ever output physically on Wednesday night against Barcelona,” Solskjaer told a press conference. “He’d never run as much in a United shirt. That was brilliant.”
But United will need more than heightened energy levels from Pogba on Tuesday when they face Lionel Messi and company again in the return leg of their Champions League quarter-final at Camp Nou.
And it will take more compelling performances than he has delivered in the last couple of months if he truly does wish to catch the eye of Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid at any point soon.
That speculation linking Pogba to the Santiago Bernabeu has coincided with a downturn in Pogba’s form under Solskjaer. Where he was electric immediately after the Norwegian replaced Mourinho – a man who was dropping him for McTominay in key Champions League games more than a year ago – he has been largely underwhelming since netting a killer second goal in the FA Cup win at Chelsea in February.
His strike at Stamford Bridge took him to a total of nine goals and six assists in his first 11 games since the change in management, but other than an assist at Crystal Palace a couple of matches later, Saturday’s pair of penalties against West Ham were his first involvement in any goals in nine games since.
Whatever his apparent endeavour of late, Pogba clearly needs to step up. Solskjaer himself had said prior to the first leg against Barcelona that such huge games were where he expected the World Cup winner to find his top level.
“It’s not just about one player; everyone has to perform at their best level. But at Paul’s best he can run a game like this. Paul’s job is to be the creator and to drive us forward. I expect him to perform tomorrow.”
And an inflated running gig can’t have been all Solskjaer had in mind. United’s early days under Solskjaer were characterised by Pogba revelling in the space afforded to him as Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic provided the ideal foils alongside him. Further up they had Marcus Rashford banging in the goals as Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial pulled defenders out of his route to goal.
But just as Rashford’s stats have dropped since Lingard and Martial have picked up injuries and he himself has been unavailable, so too has Pogba been knocked off course by Herrera and Matic suddenly not being there with the regularity and consistency of a few months ago.
Matic is back among the squad here in Barcelona but Herrera is not present and looks increasingly likely to be heading towards PSG in the summer. And Pogba cannot rely on their presence forever even if there was an about-turn in relation to the Spaniard’s future.
Now is the time for Pogba to show that he doesn’t need to have absolutely everything in place around him to deliver of his best. Now is the time for him to show that whereas he had Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo acting as his foils at Juventus and had Matic and Herrera doing similar during his hot spell earlier this year, he can actually be United’s go-to man when there are elements missing elsewhere.
True greats of the game help to raise the levels of other players rather than depending on them. And Manchester United – and Real Madrid, for that matter – need their iconic players to lead from the front when the going gets tough.
Paul Pogba’s legacy in football is yet to be determined. Will he be the leader who grabs games by the scruff and begins to dictate their flow? Or will he be the luxury star who revels only when his team are hot to trot?