SOUTHAMPTON, England — Is it possible for one man to be his team’s best and worst player in the same game?
Every time Paul Pogba got the ball during Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Southampton, you sat up, eyes widened, because it looked like something terrific was about to happen, something you would not want to miss. Then, though, more often than not the complete opposite happened.
There was a short period toward the end of the first half in which Pogba relinquished possession three times in the space of around 90 seconds. Two attempted passes, cumulatively of around 15 yards in length, went astray, while the other instance came when he was easily muscled off the ball inside his own half. That, in a nutshell, was essentially his game.
It would have been mind-bendingly frustrating had an ordinary player made such basic mistakes, but for the French World Cup winner to be guilty of such deficiencies is doubly infuriating. He is better than that. There were times in this game when he provided a threat with driving forward runs, but, yet again, his inconsistency loomed large.
Like another United talisman — Wayne Rooney, who moved to Old Trafford on this day 15 year ago — Pogba at his best can be a world-class match winner, but at his worst you might as well stick a traffic cone in the middle of the pitch. Such is the range of his club’s problems, though, that Pogba’s poor performances are highlighted more than his peers at other clubs.
Paul Pogba had yet another mixed performance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United. Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
In elite teams, others step up when the main man goes missing. If Kevin De Bruyne has a bad game, Manchester City know David Silva or Bernardo Silva or Raheem Sterling are there. Mo Salah off the pace? Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, as well as full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, can pick up Liverpool’s slack.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer relies on Pogba because there really is nobody else in midfield. Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira are game triers but are not going to control many battles, while Juan Mata has settled into the “looks nice but does little” groove and Nemanja Matic moves too slowly (among other things) to be a real factor. Fred, meanwhile, remains absent.
And therein lies the real folly of United’s summer in the transfer market. To allow two midfielders — Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini — to leave without being replaced would be questionable at the best of times, but leaving themselves so deficient of options when they know that their main man is so inconsistent is unforgivable.
A knock-on effect is that too much pressure is being placed on a set of extremely talented but young and inexperienced players. In an ideal world, United should be easing Daniel James into the team, but all of a sudden this 21-year-old, who made his senior debut just over 18 months ago and has one season in the Championship to his name, is their most potent attacker. His fine goal at St Mary’s means he has three already this season.
Ditto Mason Greenwood, who looked lively after coming on, but he is 17 and is now essentially first reserve for Manchester United. Even Marcus Rashford, who is actually only a month older than James, is a senior player when he should be learning alongside someone older and wiser. These youngsters will inevitably be inconsistent, but those dips in performance would matter less if they had more than Pogba as their point of reference.
“We as a team started giving sloppy balls away after about half an hour,” Solskjaer said after the game. “Paul was one of [the players responsible for that]. He wasn’t any different to anyone else. We as a team didn’t play well. In the last half hour he created loads for us.
“Everyone expects everything from him every game,” the United manager continued. “He has to defend, he has to attack, he has to win headers, he has to win tackles, he has to dribble, he has to make passes.”
Solskjaer meant the wider world when discussing what is expected of Pogba, but in truth he was describing how his team is composed. United lean on one player so much, but that player cannot be relied upon to be the central pillar every week.
“That’s just Paul, and he’ll thrive on that.”
Will he? Solskjaer has always been an optimist, but that is among his most hopeful statements.
When Pogba, who limped away from this game after suffering a late knock, spoke of wanting “a new challenge” in the summer, Solskjaer insisted that he could get what he desired at Old Trafford. But the 26-year-old’s recent form has only served to further highlight myriad issues faced by the club.
Since winning at Paris Saint-Germain in March — a game in which Pogba did not play — United have won just three of 16 games in all competitions. From the emotion and sentiment of early spring, reality has bitten in the months; this result, against opponents who played the last 20 minutes a man down after Kevin Danso was sent off, was simply the latest example.
“We’ve dominated the last three games, and we know we’re on the right track,” Solskjaer said of a team that has claimed five points from its opening four Premier League games. He might “know” that, but with a squad so thin and a team that looks to Pogba to lead every week, it does not look like it to everyone else.
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