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How to evaluate Paul Pogba?

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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.

Tierney out months as Arsenal injuries pile up

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According to multiple reports, including Mark Mann-Bryans of PA Sport and Charles Watts of Goal.com, Arsenal full-back Kieran Tierney could be out up to three months after dislocating his shoulder in the 3-1 win over West Ham on Monday.

Tierney was withdrawn in the 29th minute after an awkward fall, using the bottom of his shirt as a makeshift sling. The club is still deciding on whether he will require surgery, according to Mann-Bryans, and that decision will ultimately determine the length of time he will miss. Still, even without surgery, it could leave him sidelined for a month or more.

The 22-year-old has struggled with injuries since joining the Gunners this past summer, missing the first seven games of the year with a hip injury. He has seen action in just five Premier League games thus far, and again could be sidelined for a significant spell. He could also end up missing Scotland’s critical playoff match against Israel in late March depending on his recovery timeline and fitness level.

Tierney’s injury is not the only one Arsenal is currently sweating. Granit Xhaka will miss the Europa League group stage finale against Standard Liege with a concussion, while Hector Bellerin is struggling with a hamstring problem. “Hector had a feeling in his hamstring during the warm-up [before West Ham] and we took the decision,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg after the win over the Hammers. “Not going to force anyone to play if they don’t feel 100%.”

Dani Ceballos is still sidelined with a hamstring injury suffered against Vitoria in October Europa League play and won’t return to training until later this month, while Rob Holding is a question mark this week after missing the West Ham game thanks to a bruised knee.

Arsenal, currently sitting ninth in the Premier League table and is scheduled to host Manchester City this coming Sunday following the trip to Belgium. They have upcoming games against Everton, Bournemouth, Chelsea, and Manchester United through the festive period.

Report: Leicester City looking to give Maddison, Soyuncu pay raises

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According to a report by Sky Sports, Leicester City has started negotiations with young stars James Maddison and Caglar Soyuncu about new contacts with increased pay.

The pair of 23-year-olds have current deals that run through the summer of 2023, so there is no urgency to lock them up long-term, but the Foxes are hoping to ease any lingering doubts about their futures at the club by rewarding good play on the field with a salary that fits the bill.

Soyuncu has been one of the league’s breakout defensive stars this season, partnering with veteran Jonny Evans to produce the Premier League’s stingiest defense thus far. The Foxes sold Harry Maguire in the summer for a record fee, and thanks to Soyuncu haven’t missed a beat.

Maddison, meanwhile, has proven himself the heartbeat of the Leicester City attack. He is assisting or taking nearly six shots per 90 minutes, and is on pace to score double-digit goals in league play.

The Sky Sports report says both club and players are “relaxed” about securing a new deal, given the lack of urgency required, but locking down the pair with improved salaries will ward off any significant noise about their futures – at least, for now.

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool, Chelsea through to UCL knockouts

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle on Liverpool’s nervy 2-0 win against Red Bull Salzburg to take first place in Group E of the Champions League (1:55), Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Lille to secure a place in the Round of 16 (13:15) and who is the current favorite to win it all (20:45).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Plus, what Arsenal’s come-from-behind 3-1 win at West Ham means for both London clubs (29:10) and the Robbies discuss what they’re looking forward to most at the next Live Premier League Mornings Fan Fest in Miami Beach (46:05).

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 16

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The Premier League didn’t issue too many surprises at the bottom of the table this week, but two top-tier sides didn’t behave as such and shook up our rankings.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Chelsea and Man City have dipped low, and Bournemouth’s skid doesn’t have it sinking lower (yet) because of the teams beneath it.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Watford — Liverpool and Manchester United are next, and it’s looking a long way back to safety.
Last week: 20
Season high: 17
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 0-0 v. Crystal Palace
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Liverpool

19. Norwich City — Outshot, out-passed, our possessed Sheffield United at home and still lost. Bad vibes, man.
Last week: 18
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Leicester City

18. West Ham United — Just feels like there’s something lurking below the surface here. Doesn’t smell right given the Irons talent.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-1 v. Arsenal
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Southampton

17. Bournemouth — Losing to Liverpool is no shame, but it’s almost officially time to worry.
Last week: 16
Season high: 6
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 3-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

16. Aston Villa — Tom Heaton is a heck of a goalkeeper but he can’t be expected to save four A-plus danger chances per game.
Last week: 14
Season high: 8
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 4-1 v. Leicester City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Sheffield United

15. Southampton — West Ham and Villa back-to-back have to provide four points if Saints revival is to be believed.
Last week: 15
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Newcastle United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. West Ham United

14. Everton — Duncan Ferguson gives the Toffees board reason enough to be patient with their managerial hire, and then Napoli goes and fires Carlo Ancelotti.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

13. Burnley — The defending against Spurs — we know, Spurs are good — was enough to drop them far lower than four spots. Abject stuff from a Sean Dyche side.
Last week: 9
Season high: 5
Season low: 15
Last match: Lost 5-0 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Newcastle

12. Arsenal — Freddie Ljungberg started Nicolas Pepe, and Nicholas Pepe was his best player. Stunning stuff, really. Look at the assist below.
Last week: 13
Season high: 4
Season low: 12
Last match: Won 3-1 at West Ham
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Man City

11. Crystal Palace — I want to believe, but am holding out for something more. A derby win versus Brighton would suffice.
Last week: 7
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 0-0 at Watford
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Monday v. Brighton

10. Newcastle United — Again, Steve Bruce‘s men are getting tremendous Fortune and he’s pushing almost all the right buttons (It takes guts to start Andy Carroll over the struggling record signing Joelinton). This could be a sign of the Geordie Apocalypse.
Last week: 11
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

9. Sheffield United — A little wobbly lately, but still a good comeback at Carrow Road.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Norwich City
Up next: 10 a.m ET Saturday v. Aston Villa

8. Brighton and Hove Albion — Doesn’t it say something that a country who starves for young, strong English coaches had one sitting in Sweden for eight years? Graham Potter is legit.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 2-1 at Arsenal
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

7. Chelsea — Some of those young guys who’ve played so well, so early, are looking a little ragged. It’s a shame Frank Lampard is still waiting on Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who will really help things take another step.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

6. Manchester City — It probably has nothing to do with the system, and a lot to do with not having Aymeric Laporte, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane… Still, it needs to be better than a home derby loss to a Paul Pogba-less United.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Manchester United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday at Arsenal

5. Tottenham Hotspur — We’re gonna need multiple screens on Sunday morning, as Wolves-Spurs and Man Utd-Everton are both must-monitor.
Last week: 8
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 5-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Wolves

4. Manchester United — Ole’s at the wheel, and still doesn’t feel like Lewis Hamilton or anything but we’re not worried about heading off a cliff.
Last week: 6
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 2-1 at Man City
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton

3. Wolves — Beat Spurs on Sunday and I’ll go ahead and bet on them as a Top Four finisher, even after the Brighton draw failed to deliver the goods.
Last week: 3
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Brighton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Spurs

2. Leicester City — Wow.
Last week: 2
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Norwich City

1. Liverpool — Wow, only atop the table.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 3-0 at Bournemouth
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Watford