Pogba a big player in the modern sense
It seems safe to say Paul Pogba will never please everyone. Not least when so many of those watching seem so eager to be displeased: to rail at every moment of struggle, those times where Manchester United’s most intermittently captivating midfielder refuses to do all of the many things that have been expected of him since his return to English football.
United and Pogba have puttered and sparked this season. At times they have seemed a perfect fit in the most unwanted way, a team and a star player who are both prone to fades, moments of drift, a sense of trapped energy. Not so here. This was a wonderful, boisterous semi-final played out in a fug of heavy London heat, the kind of giddy spring day that stinks of cup finals past.
In the middle of which there was a moment of shared illumination as United produced their most compelling big-game display of the season, coming from behind to beat Tottenham 2-1; and Pogba laid on one of his most consistently effective team efforts of a skittish year. His best moment was a perfect little miniature. United were 1-0 down, Pogba having played a hand in the terrible defending that led to Tottenham’s breakaway opening goal.
In those moments there was something a little sad and tender about Pogba’s futile attempts to gallop back, head bobbing frantically. A little later he was outnumbered on the left, robbed and then nutmegged by Kieran Trippier, to huge raucous jeers. But he turned his afternoon around with a fine hand in the equaliser, pulling himself up to his full height and bringing to bear the full weight of that wonderfully easy talent.
First Pogba overpowered the un-over powerable Mousa Dembélé on the left, fishing the ball out and romping away, spotting the run of Alexis Sánchez. A lovely dipping cross zoned in on the Sánchez forehead, an irresistibly fragrant, lilac-scented, rose-petal-strewn invitation to nod the ball into the net, which Sánchez accepted.
It was an excellent piece of creative play, and in just the right bruisingly muscular fashion for those who crave this kind of thing from Pogba. Part of the Proper Football Man objection to his worst days is the shrill obsession with his powerful physique, the idea that there is something wasteful, even a little cowardly in his refusal to spend most of the game barging his way around the pitch in the classic island-football style.
Much is expected of this abstract notion of Pogba. A lot of it seems to be based in a swirl of preconceptions, a folk memory of the midfield general who grabs an entire game in his great meaty hands: a kind of footballing Beowulf, two parts Roy Keane highlights reel, two parts false memory syndrome of those bulky-thighed midfield bullocks of years past.
Never mind football has changed. That it was perhaps never really like this much in the first place. That it is hard to think of any midfielder who really does this now in what is a hugely complex team game.
Pogba is required to take charge – this despite the fact he is clearly a footballer who plays in moments, who likes to tick along on the edges before producing those passages where the day can be bent to his will. With a little help, of course. At Wembley against Spurs in January Pogba had played as part of a two alongside Matic in a game in which Dembélé marched United’s midfield around Wembley in a friendly headlock, ambling through those wide lime-green spaces like a bear in pursuit of a picnic basket.
Here Pogba started in the most Pogba-friendly midfield, with Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic a fine, composed two-man escort. Herrera in particular was excellent, covering so much space and passing so neatly that Pogba was able to use his guile and power with an increasing sense of purpose.
The preoccupation with his muscles is it own kind of prejudice. He is an artful midfielder, a passer and a dribbler. In the second half there were a couple of wonderful flighted crossfield balls, and a nice moment as Herrera scored the winning goal.
Pogba was infield at the time, covering the space as the ball bounced across the Spurs defence. As it hit the net Pogba stopped and raised his arms, a moment of quietly touching lone celebration for a player who was used here in the best way, a high-grade cutting edge to a driving team performance. – Guardian
‘‘ The preoccupation with his muscles is its own kind of prejudice. He is an artful midfielder, a passer and a dribbler