On Saturday evening, Paul Pogba will return to the Premier League after a three-game domestic ban. The date is significant not just because it is the first Saturday night televised domestic football in the UK, but because it marks exactly 14 months since Pogba last lost a league game. October 23, 2016 certainly feels an awful long time ago.
That statistic is astounding. Since the 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea return and when Manchester United’s defence held out for 30 seconds before conceding, Pogba has started 41 Premier League games. He was won 27 and drawn the other 14. Without him starting, Manchester United have lost five and drawn six of their 18 league games.
If records with and without certain players can often be a little misleading, there is further evidence to support the Pogba theory. The key is not just that the Frenchman is such a tremendous footballer, but that he is so dominant in his team’s general play. That’s even the case at a club the size of (and with the budget of) Manchester United.
This season, Pogba has registered 1.04 touches per minute; nobody else at Old Trafford breaks the 1.00 barrier. His 0.81 passes per minute is also the highest of any United player. These are both to be expected, but Pogba has also attempted shots at a rate virtually identical (one every 27.9 mins vs 28.5 mins) to Romelu Lukaku. He has completed dribbles at a virtually identical rate (one per 31.1 mins vs 31.0 mins) to Anthony Martial too. Pogba does not just bridge the gap between midfield and attack; he is the midfield and attack.
Yet Pogba also dominates the immeasurables. Holding off two opposition players at a time, the ability to be on the edge of the box at the perfect moment and the skill and movement to shift out of tight spaces are all evident within ten minutes of watching him play, but it is Pogba’s sheer hunger that most impresses his teammates.
“He is, of course, a great player, but sometimes with natural ability, some players think that is enough,” said Andrea Pirlo after leaving Juventus for MLS. “That’s not the case with him. You are getting a player with a great attitude. He wants to be the best in the world, he wants to learn off the coaches and the senior players. He is hungry to be the best.”
There is nothing particularly new in this dominance, of course. In his autobiography, Claudio Marchisio described Pogba as the most complete player he had ever played alongside, despite their association at Juventus ending when the Frenchman was just 23. “He’s tall, has good pace, he’s physically impressive and has unique technique for someone of his size,” Marchisio wrote. And Pogba is getting more and more influential as seasons pass.
This is all wonderful, but the flipside is just as obvious and has been experienced plenty often by United this year. Having a player who is so dominant when present leaves a gaping hole when he is absent.
That is particularly true when your most important player is a central midfielder. The only players close to Pogba for individual importance to their team are Harry Kane and Wilfried Zaha, but there are others who can ape their role, albeit less successfully. Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard; none will do. Pogba is a compilation of their greatest hits rolled into one. There is no pale imitation, let alone replacement.
Pogba’s absence – he has missed 35% of United’s league games in 2017 prior to Saturday – provides the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds Mourinho’s reputation as United manager. Mourinho would never accept being 11 points behind the league leaders whatever the absences within his squad, but Pogba has missed games against Manchester City (home and away), Chelsea (away), Liverpool (away), Tottenham (away) and Arsenal (away) in the last eight months. United have taken two points and scored two goals in those six matches. It’s what keeps him low on our list of 2017’s best Premier League footballers.
‘What if Pogba were here?’ is the inevitable hypothetical query. It is a vacuous question, but one that Manchester United supporters use as fuel for warmth as they look to explain the gap to their city rivals. If Tottenham are the Harry Kane team, Manchester United are the Paul Pogba team; neither need be taken as insults.
For those of us without a horse in the race, it will just be wonderful to have him back. As the Premier League prepares to take on the Saturday night prime-time TV ratings war, what better way to mark it than with the return of the league’s MVP?