The knives come out very quickly for Paul Pogba when his performances fall short of expectations.
The world’s most expensive player when he made his £89million return to Manchester United in 2016, the midfielder’s price tag is regularly used as a stick to beat him with. And his hair…it’s blue! And…and he dances!
Of course, his hairstyle has no bearing on what happens on the pitch and is not indicative of any lack of professionalism or commitment to his craft. But, in fairness, Pogba’s form of late has warranted criticism.
Amid talk of a fallout with manager José Mourinho, the Frenchman has been subdued and sub-par in the centre of United’s midfield, even finding himself dropped in favour of academy graduate Scott McTominay on a couple of occasions.
Overall, however, since his move back to Old Trafford from Juventus, the 25-year-old playmaker has been the Red Devils’ most reliable and high-level performer; he does things his team-mates cannot, and he does them more often than he receives credit for.
The one thing missing from Pogba’s United career thus far, though, and the bone of contention his critics will cite ad infinitum until undeniable contrary evidence is presented, is that he hasn’t affected a ‘big’ game in the manner he’s capable of. Or, at least, that was the case until Saturday’s Manchester derby.
After producing a limp first-half performance, United trailed neighbours Manchester City 2-0 at the break, with the home side on course to seal the three points they needed to claim the Premier League title in emphatic fashion.
Mourinho’s men were torn to shreds by Pep Guardiola’s table toppers, outshot by nine to zero, barely able to lay a glove on their rivals and fortunate to only be two down. But the second half was a different story; whatever the Portuguese boss said to his charges at the break worked, with United a team transformed. And no player carried the fight to the champions-elect more than Pogba.
The former Juventus star has shone on the big stage before, many times throughout his career to date, in fact – he helped the Bianconeri to a Champions League final and multiple Serie A titles, as well as being named the best young player at the 2014 World Cup with France. But he had lacked a definitive display in red.
He was outstanding as United beat Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates in December, providing two assists as he intelligently and skilfully led his side’s counter-attacking efforts, but a second-half red card sullied that performance, meaning it will forever come with an inseparable caveat.
There are no caveats to what Pogba did at the Etihad. No questions marks over his discipline, commitment or desire. With the game seemingly out of reach for United, Pogba inspired. The Red Devils went from outclassed and out-passed in the middle of the park, to indomitable and indefatigable thanks to the marauding, swashbuckling energy and quality of their superstar No.6.
With nine Premier League assists to his name this term, the Frenchman is United’s leading creator, but it was as a finisher, a penalty-box destroyer, that he stood out against City. He scored twice in three second-half minutes to draw the away team level, which set the table for Chris Smalling’s match-winner.
Pogba’s first strike, latching on to an astute chest-down from Ander Herrera after some unusually slick United attacking interplay, signified the 25-year-old’s desire to break ahead of the ball and seek scoring chances. And his second was in the same vein, busting a gut as he made a beeline for the centre of City’s penalty area, demanding and receiving a perfect delivery from Alexis Sánchez, which he dutifully dispatched with a neat downward header.
Aside from his goals, Pogba exuded positivity in all aspects of his play. Four times he employed his dribbling technique to saunter beyond his marker, and although he only completed 24 passes as Guardiola’s men typically assumed three quarters of possession, 54 per cent of them were played forward, with only seven going backwards and four square.
In past encounters against fellow top-six sides, Pogba has often been passed by. Against Tottenham Hotspur, at Wembley in January, he was substituted after 63 minutes of missed passes, defensive lapses and ineffectual attacking, for example.
But at the Etihad, the presence of Herrera as a third man in midfield was key, allowing the gifted France international the breathing space of reduced defensive responsibility, and therefore the license to wander forward without fear of exposing his defence.
Ever since his arrival from Juventus almost two years ago, there have been calls for Mourinho to eschew his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation for 4-3-3 to enable Pogba to play in his preferred position on the left of a midfield trio; against City, the Portuguese obliged and was rewarded by his most talented player.
Post-match, as United celebrated postponing City’s title party, Pogba’s demeanour was that of a man who had just silenced a few doubters – equal parts anger, relief and defiance.
Before the game, the external pressure on the midfielder was mounting: Guardiola claimed he had been offered the chance to sign the Frenchman by agent Mino Raiola; and, once again, there was an absurd hoo-ha over his latest hairstyle, with former United captain Gary Neville insisting Pogba “doesn’t help himself” by opting for colourful coiffures.
With a brace to inspire a come-from-behind win against the country’s best team – and what, despite its futility in respect of this season’s title race, felt like a watershed result for United under Mourinho – Pogba was everything the Red Devils hoped he’d be, everything the Old Trafford faithful knows he can be, and everything his detractors, in light of new evidence, may now struggle to continue claiming he is not.