Getty Images

How to evaluate Paul Pogba?

Leave a comment

Ask yourself: Who is the most divisive player in the Premier League?

Even if you hadn’t already seen the headline of this article, one name would undoubtedly come to your mind before all others. Paul Pogba.

The moment Pogba arrived at Old Trafford from Juventus for a then-world record transfer fee, the toothpaste was out of the tube, never to find its way back inside. The takes came flying from all angles, blanketing social media, and producing foam at the mouths of television pundits and analysts. Those have yet to cease or even slow, with every single performance somehow stoking the flames on both sides of the debate.

Is Pogba a flop, or is he a world-class player stuck in a mediocre squad bringing him down?

To even begin answering that without spitting hot fire, we first must figure out how to fairly evaluate the performances of such a discordant presence as the 26-year-old Frenchman. Before we analyze what standards are fair and what are not, let’s look at a snapshot of the fire takes that television and social media spewed after the 2-0 loss at the hands of title favorites Manchester City.

Phew. Take a breather, you earned it. Not easy to navigate the minefield. Now that you’ve safely made it here, let’s look at this introspectively – what are the standards by which we should judge Paul Pogba? For a player who has won a World Cup, 4 Scudettos, a Europa League, and an EFL Cup plus reached a Champions League final, there’s a lot of negativity out there.

Naturally, the first and easiest (laziest?) standard to mention for any non-defender is goals. Ultimately, it seems harsh to judge a central midfielder by his goals tally, but Pogba has scored 52 league goals in his career plus another 54 assists, a stunning amount for a player who doesn’t have the same attacking responsibilities as other attacking midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, or Gylfi Sigurdsson.

But is Pogba even a central midfielder? Is he better in a more of an attacking role, and therefore goals and assists should be expected? To judge Pogba fairly, it’s prudent to determine his best position, but if two Red Devil managers can’t even seem to do that, how are we meant to even begin solving that predicament? Pogba has improved his xG per shot value significantly each year at Manchester United, moving from a paltry 0.07 his first season to 0.10 and now 0.16, suggesting he is moving further forward into better attacking positions as his Manchester United career progresses. Whether that reflects an improvement as a player or a change in position is up for debate.

Jose Mourinho infamously locked Pogba into a deeper, more shackled role his first season at United, and while it understandably limited the electricity Pogba was able to provide, he actually performed quite well in the role. Pogba scored just five goals and assisted four, but he completed 1.8 tackles per 90 minutes, recorded 1.0 interceptions per 90, and cleared the ball 1.4 times that season, all highs for his time at Manchester United. This season, those numbers are down to 1.3 tackles, 0.5 interceptions, and 1.0 clears. Interestingly enough, all Pogba’s Manchester United defensive numbers are lower than when he was at Juventus, likely a product of both a more central role and a more defensive league in Serie A.

So should Manchester United build its formation with the 26-year-old as its focal point? Pogba excelled at Juventus in the spotlight, and despite fewer passes completed per 90 minutes (48.5 per 90 his last season with Juventus, lower than any year at Manchester United), he still managed the same amount of key passes at around 1.5 per 90 minutes, more efficient in Italy than he has been in England. Despite higher passing numbers, Pogba has a less visible role at Manchester United next to other midfielders like Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, and Fred, and that could affect his perceptive contribution. He also has less adept defensive talent, with guys like Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira, Stefano Sturaro, Giorginio Chiellini, and Leonardo Bonucci to lean on through the middle at his previous stop, allowing him more freedom to venture forward without worrying about what happens behind him.

Against Manchester City, Pogba was given a heavy role in attacking build-up play, finishing with a team-high in shots and attacking-third passes. And yet…he didn’t really do THAT much.

Two chances created is good, and he contributed a bit defensively with two tackles, but it still feels a bit static. Still, that’s not all his fault. With Fred next to him struggling mightily to cover the back line, Pogba was unable to truly be a force carrying the ball forward and dishing to teammates. This begs the question, is Pogba not good enough to carry a team, or does he have too much on his shoulders?

Given Pogba’s fluid positional role, we move to the other heavy debate regarding the Frenchman – club vs. country. Many criticize Pogba for playing better for Les Blues than for Manchester United, but is it fair to compare the two? In his 2018 World Cup run, Pogba excelled, both as a locker room presence and an on-field star. Still, many believed that France won the tournament without playing to its full potential, at times looking lethargic and overly compact. If he has different roles between the two, it becomes more difficult to directly compare the performances.

That begs the question…is that what Pogba’s game has become? Contribute with fewer flashy moments but doing the dirty work, playing a possessional style of midfield role that racks up the short passes and excels at positioning but with less noticeable moments? One tool in Pogba’s arsenal that has stayed consistent throughout his entire career is his ability to ping a long-ball, a skill he gets very little credit for publicly. This was on display against Manchester City, dropping a dime to a streaking Jesse Lingard at the far post in the 16th minute, one which Lingard somehow missed with an off-balance one-touch shot to the far corner.

Pogba’s long-ball rate is among the best in the Premier League for outfield players, with his 4.7 per 90 rate good for third among midfielders, with only Ruben Neves and Granit Xhaka owning a better mark. He was 7/9 on long balls against Manchester City, and while many of those were switches of play, Pogba’s long-distance ability is a weapon from anywhere on the pitch.

It’s impossible to deny that Pogba is no longer the flashy superstar he was at Juventus, and part of analyzing his contributions on the field now is to determine why that is. Has he really fallen off the table, or is he just a different player now? If he’s different, how is he different and is it for better, for worse, or both?

Feeding the narrative is the team’s inability to perform in big games over the course of his Manchester United career. This season, Manchester United has beaten up on the lower teams in the table, but they’ve come up empty against rivals. The club has scored just two goals in its last five matches against top five sides, and aside from 2-2 draws with Chelsea and Arsenal, Manchester United has failed to score more than one goal in any match against a top five side this season. Pogba has failed to score any of his 13 goals this season against top five sides, and has just one assist in those matches, feeding the Rashford winner against Spurs (another long-ball gem).

Still, compared to most other similar players, Pogba outclasses them all on the statistical attacking radar. A similar player in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic? Close, but no. Wolves breakout star Ruben Neves? Again, almost there, but lacking the goalscoring and the consistency. Same with Belgian youngster Youri Tielemans. How about a more attacking player in Felipe Anderson? Not there yet. Potential replacement Adrien Rabiot? Only the attacking monstrosity in PSG boosts the buildup numbers, but the direct offensive contribution isn’t in the same zip code. One man attacking wizard Wilfried Zaha? Somehow still not meeting Pogba’s level. You have to elevate to an attacking midfielder of Christian Eriksen’s level to find a match.

And yet, some will say – with validity – shouldn’t Pogba be expected to maintain a class of his own given the price Manchester United paid? And we’re back to square one.

So, with all this in mind…is there a conclusion on Paul Pogba here? That wasn’t the point. The above was just meant to guide you on your journey to your own hot take. Was Pogba worth his price? Has Pogba regressed since moving to Old Trafford, or has he simply adapted? Should United consider replacing him with a player on lower wages? These are all valid questions that still need answering, but there’s likely more to come on those fronts as well.

Ultimately, a hot-button player like Pogba will produce piles of debate material, but before any takes can be reasonably digested, it is prudent to ponder how to evaluate a player of his caliber and skill set, and what values on the field are more significant towards his contribution than others. None of this information is relevant if a decision can’t be made on what we want from the Frenchman. There’s no question, however, that Manchester United still has a long way to go to reach the heights of old, and whether Pogba is a player good enough at the right places to be a part of that potential revival is a valid debate.

Chairman Mubarak: Other clubs are ‘jealous’ of Man City’s success

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak believes that other clubs — namely those who have fallen miles back of the back-to-back Premier League champions — are “jealous” of the club’s success.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury ]

The root of the perceived jealousy is, of course, Man City’s seemingly unlimited spending power which dwarves that of just about — if not — every other club in the PL. There’s a growing sense around the league — and around the world — that clubs like City, just to name one, are doing the game a disservice by distorting the transfer market and building an infallible super-team with the aid of unprecedented financial resources.

Mubarak believes that these feelings also stem from other clubs’ failed dealings in the transfer market: spending comparable — if not more — money on players who don’t justify that price tag the same way some of City’s big-money buys have done — quotes from the BBC:

“With success, there is a certain level of jealousy, envy, whatever you call it. That’s part of the game.

“It’s not easy for our competition, we know that. But the reality is, we didn’t buy the most expensive player in the Premier League [Paul Pogba], we didn’t buy the most expensive goalkeeper [Kepa Arrizabalaga], we didn’t buy the most expensive midfielder, we didn’t buy the most expensive striker [Romelu Lukaku].

“People make decisions, they’ve got to live by them. This is a well-run club.”

City’s financial dealings have regularly been in the headlines of late, as they are believed to have circumvented FFP rules by lying about sponsorship deals so as to balance a larger expenditure on transfer fees and player wages with revenue generated by the club.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Suarez defends surgery decision after Barca lose Copa del Rey final

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez has defended himself from criticism for undergoing knee surgery that prevented him from playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

The Uruguayan released a statement Sunday saying he had no option despite the timing of the final, which Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia on Saturday.

Suarez said he had to undergo surgery “against my will” after rupturing his meniscus against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

He said the surgery earlier this month had nothing to do with a cartilage issue that he had been nursing since the beginning of the season.

Barcelona won the Spanish league but finished the season on a low after being eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League and losing the Copa final to Valencia.

Suarez scored 25 goals in 49 matches this season, second only to Lionel Messi on the scoring charts for Barcelona.

U-20 WC roundup: Mexico hammered by Japan; Italy top Ecuador

AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
Leave a comment

A roundup of all of Sunday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

Mexico 0-3 Japan

Mexico’s heavy defeat at the hands of Japan means El Tri‘s stars of tomorrow, who have zero points from their first two games, cannot finish top-two in Group B and can only advance to the knockout rounds as one of four third-place teams.

Taisei Miyashiro (21st and 77th minutes) and Kyosuke Tagawa (52nd) bagged the goals on Sunday, as Japan picked up its first victory and set up an all-important finale with Italy to decide who finishes top of the group on Wednesday.

Ecuador 0-1 Italy

Andrea Pinamonti scored the only goal in Italy’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Ecuador to reach the six-point mark and guarantee themselves a top-two finish and a place in the round of 16.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Senegal 2-0 Colombia [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Poland 5-0 Tahiti [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Monday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Honduras v. Uruguay — 12 p.m. ET
Qatar v. Ukraine — 12 p.m. ET
USA v. Nigeria — 2:30 p.m. ET
Norway v. New Zealand — 2:30 p.m. ET