Paul Pogba: Why Always Him?

Toby Cudworth
Pogba is always the United player in the firing line
Pogba is always the United player in the firing line / FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Paul Pogba is probably the most talented midfielder at Manchester United.

Hell, Paul Pogba is probably the most talented midfielder in the Premier League, if we're honest.

Paul Pogba is also, almost certainly and not probably, the most divisive midfielder in the Premier League.

Whichever side of the Pogba divide you're on, it's hard not to acknowledge the fact that the majority of Manchester United's woes - and there are many, many of them - seem to fall at the Frenchman's feet.

Pogba played just half an hour against Istanbul Basaksehir
Pogba played just half an hour against Istanbul Basaksehir / OZAN KOSE/Getty Images

The Red Devils' latest shambolic showing came away at Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side laboured to a frankly embarrassing 2-1 defeat, featuring some exceptionally bad defending for both of the Turkish champions' goals.

Pogba's contribution and impact for those two goals? He had none.

Instead, the Frenchman was sat on the bench watching on, as his admittedly underwhelming start to the 2020/21 season - caused by a curtailed pre-season and coronavirus diagnosis - continued with a watching brief. The trouble is that when United lose, Pogba seems to have few supporters, particularly from those in prominent on-air media roles.

Graeme Souness has long been a critic, previously saying Pogba would be an 'absolute doddle' to play against, adding that he tries too hard to be 'clever' and 'be the star of the show.' Perhaps not surprising coming from a staunch Liverpool supporter and arch enemy of United, but a little over the top.

His latest detractor comes in the form of legendary United midfielder Paul Scholes, someone you'd think may be on the side of a player who clearly has so much to give. But rather than point the finger at old teammate Solskjaer, however, he angled his first wave of criticism following this latest setback at Pogba - and not for the first time.

“The amount of times they gave the ball away, bad decisions, trying to beat a man," Scholes remarked on BT Sport, quoted by the Star. "Paul Pogba when he came on, he was trying to beat a man, hold people off instead of passing the ball and keep it moving."

In truth, by the time Pogba had come on for Donny van de Beek - United's best midfield performer, incidentally - the damage had been done.

United were limp, uninspiring and unable to break down Istanbul's defence, and not even Pogba could light a fire to bring them back on terms. Scholes did go on to lambast the efforts of Anthony Martial, suggesting that he, along with Marcus Rashford, must show more understanding of their key attributes and look to get in behind with their pace, but that was an afterthought. Pogba was front and centre.

What's interesting, furthermore, is that there seems to be very little that Bruno Fernandes can do wrong.

On paper, he's been electrifying since he arrived from Sporting nine months ago, boasting 13 goals and 12 assists in the 32 games he's played for United. With numbers like that, why would you feel the need to overly critique his performances, given he's significantly contributed to the club's goal threat?

Fernandes was very ordinary in Istanbul
Fernandes was very ordinary in Istanbul / DeFodi Images/Getty Images

If you dig even a little bit deeper, you're reminded that eight of those goals have come from the penalty spot, while another came from a free-kick against Bournemouth last season.

With those set pieces out of the equation, Fernandes has actually scored just four in 32 - averaging one open play goal every eight games - which really isn't the kind of numbers you expect from a player who cost United an initial €55m, and certainly not the digits you expect from the player most advanced of a midfield three or diamond.

Fernandes has, undoubtedly, added grains of quality to United's team, evidenced by the upward trajectory they showed at the back end of the 2019/20 season. His arrival boosted those around him, bringing out the best in Martial, Rashford and young Mason Greenwood.

What the 26-year-old doesn't yet have is consistency, and he's gone missing at times this season, all in games that United have struggled in. Against Istanbul, Fernandes gave the ball away an incredible 34 times, and looked bereft of ideas when defeat was staring United in the face.

Pogba was no better, admittedly, but the turgid tone of the game had already been set for the previous 60 minutes, making it incredibly difficult for the tide to be turned.

On the face of it, Fernandes is a wonderful frontrunner, who capitalises well on an increased amount of space when his team has taken the lead. Against those who frustrate, and edge ahead first, he appears to have already slipped into the bad habits that United continue to demonstrate under Solskjaer's tutelage, ones that Pogba has been exposed to for a longer period of time.

Pogba is the one who captures the most negativity
Pogba is the one who captures the most negativity / Visionhaus/Getty Images

Pogba, however, remains the poster boy of failure, even when the finger pointing should almost certainly be headed in another direction. He is a World Cup winner, yes, and he should be influencing games more, but the inherent inability of those around him to play to his strengths are a huge factor in any perceived under performance.

The rhetoric that Pogba is the big problem is simply untrue. Juventus were able to make him great, so why can't United? That's the question that everybody should be asking.

For more from Toby Cudworth, follow him on Twitter!