Paul Pogba and the weight of expectations

Paul Pogba 2016

Not many professional footballers can feel the weight of expectation bearing down on them at just 23. Add into the mix, it’s a national team as opposed to a handful of disgruntled supporters on social media and, Juventus’ Paul Pogba seems to be a man on a mission.

The objective? To dispel suggestions that he’s vastly over-rated by critics, as well as displaying his quality on the highest stage internationally: having blossomed well thus far during his four-year spell in Turin. It should come as no surprise that a number of European heavyweights have been linked with a big money move for Pogba, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and his former side Manchester United – who are still ruing their decision to let him leave back in 2012 on a free transfer.

He’s not your ordinary footballer, either. His towering presence at 6ft 3in means he can often bully opponents off-the-ball on the pitch, whilst he uses his imposing build to good effect, shrugging off challenges with impressive agility and bursts of raw power that defenders develop nightmares over.

Unorthodox, the talented Frenchman is a joy to watch and continues to get better as he matures. Last season he netted 10 goals, created 16 assists and was a driving force in the absence of departed duo Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo at the heart of Juve’s midfield. He seems genuinely settled in Italy, is progressing well and found himself a worthy spot in the FIFA World XI of 2015 – but media pressure on France’s squad has continued to build and Pogba is at the forefront of this criticism.

Having made his senior debut just a week after turning 20, the big occasions haven’t fazed him. Awarded the Best Young Player accolade for his impressive displays at the 2014 World Cup, he showed composure and quality beyond his years, which had been influenced by his successful experiences at youth international level.

Fast-forward two years and, it seemed inevitable that excess pressure would be placed upon the star men (him included) to step up and deliver. Especially with the European Championships being held in his home country, all of the pre-tournament features took an extended look at what Pogba could deliver.

Pogba’s tournament – explained

Against Romania, he showed flashes of his individual brilliance – but they were patient and infrequent in a match which needed something for supporters to get excited about. It seemed as though he was content to play deep alongside Blaise Matuidi and spray excellent passes for the most part, which was good. So why was he slammed by the media the following day? They felt he didn’t get forward enough, he was holding himself back and his cautiousness could’ve cost them two points on the opening day – but for an excellent late winner by Dimitri Payet.

Pogba’s player dashboard against Romania – solid but unspectacular by his standards.

Surprisingly dropped against Albania, it seemed he was punished for the media’s outspoken opinions of his performance. So when he was introduced in the second-half and provided the decisive assist to give France a two-goal cushion, you could excuse emotion wanting to explode in a cocktail of frustration and underlying passion to prove his critics wrong. He was criticised and still, the extent of the media’s coverage over his actions often seems tiresome – as though he’s being made a scapegoat for France’s underwhelming performances (despite winning games).

In comparison to the first dashboard, Pogba was more adventurous against Albania – got forward more often and it had a beneficial impact on the team as a whole. He created two chances, completed more successful take-ons and his passing was ever-present in the opposition half too.

Telling contribution – Pogba was more adventurous against Albania after being introduced

Considering the position he had been playing under Didier Deschamps’ France side, in an attempt to accommodate the best players, it would’ve been naive to expect much from Pogba from an attacking standpoint. Deployed alongside Matuidi as part of a defensive-minded midfield pairing, or even a trio with Leicester’s N’Golo Kante during the tournament itself, this meant that he had to be cautious and patient when choosing his moments to drive forward toward the final third.

If he did it too often, he’d be criticised for selfish play and potentially leaving a gaping hole in midfield with the opponents eager to exploit, and if he didn’t attack, he was described as “invisible” or “disappointing”. At the end of the day, he wasn’t really given the ability to free roam like he is with Juve – where they have established defensive-minded midfielders in Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio for instance, allowing Pogba to get forward as and when he can.

Against Switzerland, Pogba was excellent. They had already sealed their place in the knockout rounds after consecutive victories so a win wasn’t essential, and neither side were particularly intent on conceding many chances as they attempted to keep a clean sheet at the back. The majority of France’s side were otherwise average, but Pogba embraced the match and looked to constantly get supporters on their feet. His long legs covered blades of grass with seeming ease, and he forced Yann Sommer into two good saves before hitting the crossbar with a fantastic long-range hit.

His tournament, as they said, had finally started. What they didn’t say though, was the fact Deschamps had made five changes to the starting XI and the inclusion of both Moussa Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye in the heart of midfield had granted Pogba free roam to get forward more frequently than he usually would in the current France set-up. It’s no surprise that given his undeniable talent, ability and potential to keep getting better, supporters and critics alike expect performances like that from him every game.

During the knockout rounds, Pogba experienced both highs and lows. Conceding an early penalty against Republic of Ireland, before going on to be heavily involved in France’s comeback. A well-taken header against Iceland, and a dominant performance against Germany in a tactical semi-final battle meant his contribution against Fernando Santos’ side could be potentially pivotal in the final result.

Despite the narrow 1-0 defeat, and the tireless criticism placed on his performance, there were many things to take from it. Pogba was being effectively stifled – playing too deep meant he had to curb his attacking runs and remain defensive-minded for the majority of the game, which meant there were rare eyecatching moments from him.

It’s clear that he has more of a significant impact on the game when he’s playing in a more advanced position, so a player like Kanté or the aforementioned Cabaye would have the defensive responsibility to protect the backline whilst he’d have the chance to get forward without worrying about tracking back as profusely. Instead, he had to partner up alongside Matuidi – just like he did against Germany, allowing Sissoko to get forward with bursting runs toward the final third, and Portugal struggled to handle him. Sissoko performed in the manner everyone expected Pogba to, with many experts and critics alike clearly mis-understanding the various roles they play in the French side.

Pogba made plenty of successful tackles, interceptions and won aerial duels – despite being criticised for being ineffective as a defensive-minded midfielder.

In comparison, Matuidi, who was hailed as one of France’s best players during the final… Committed more fouls and his long passes were mostly unsuccessful.

To conclude, Pogba’s Euro 2016 tournament was a good one – although he was played in a more defensive role than he does for Juve, it was clear from the off that it’s not his preferred position.

He was effective in possession, sprayed a number of memorable long passes and was ever-present in France’s quest for European success. Unfortunately they failed at the final hurdle, and questions will be inevitably asked as to whether their semi-final victory over Germany took a lot out of the players, who had to perform to the same level just three days afterward. Ultimately he’s a talented player with high expectations, and statements like these from respected pundits just fuel more criticism.

Whether he does opt to leave Turin this summer, with Manchester United calling, it’s important that he maintains his high levels of both focus and desire – he and the rest of his French team-mates will be hoping to go one better than runners-up in Russia.

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