“He’s not there to make the crowd rise every time he touches the ball. I’ve told him that sometimes he needs to play in a neutral way. He’s a midfielder, not a No 10.”
Didier Deschamps may have struggled to curb Paul Pogba’s instinct to be the showman, but the original water-carrier might be a combination of impressed and frustrated should he watch Pogba in his current position, resisting the urge to charge forward at every opportunity but still producing moments to make bums lift off seats.
Whether it’s the inch-perfect ball over the top of the defence to find Juan Mata, the effortless way he dispossessed a Saint-Etienne player on the edge of his own box, the shrugging-off of Jordan Veretout before curling the ball just wide or the towering header that took his ‘woodwork’ total for the season to an infuriating eight, this was a Pogba performance that was somehow simultaneously disciplined but dynamic.
“The last couple of weeks Pogba has been doing this, playing in the Michael Carrick role if you will, controlling and dictating play and he’s done it really well,” said Paul Scholes before the game, but at that stage he was still expecting Marouane Fellaini to play deeper, with Pogba given licence to roam. But Scholes underestimated just how much Jose Mourinho trusts Pogba in this new role; there is a reason why Carrick has not made it beyond half-time in a Premier League match since January 2.
Paul Pogba is running the show. No surprise. He's been brought up in European football and this arena suits him. Fantastic player#MUFC
— The United Stand (@UnitedStandMUFC) February 16, 2017
We too readily measure footballers in goals and assists rather the unquantifiables like presence, confidence and class; Pogba is falling short in the areas that are easily defined – leading to preposterous notions like Dele Alli being worth more – but soaring in the unmeasurables. His desire to be on the ball and drive, or float, or simply lay it off in that ‘neutral’ way, demands the attention of the eye. While you watch Fellaini through fingers, you watch Pogba through wide eyes.
Yes, this was Saint-Etienne and yes, Pogba should have scored. Even WhoScored, whose ratings put him third on a list of Premier League players this season, could not mark him higher than half his teammates. His performance oozed class rather than shots on target, intelligence rather than key passes and leadership rather than interceptions. The key part of that sentence is the latter; Pogba is undoubtedly a future captain of Manchester United.
The narrative for this game was Pogba being on the same pitch as his brother, with their mother watching from the stands, but the real story is just how comfortable the Frenchman looks in a withdrawn role alongside Ander Herrera, and how his decision-making belies his age. It’s easy to focus on the big number featuring an 8 and a 9 and forget the 2 and 3 of his age. He is three months younger than Jesse Lingard; let that sink in.