Paul Pogba‘s career reached a crossroads on Sunday.
Right as Manchester United‘s two biggest rivals were competing for the Premier League title, Pogba and his team-mates were falling to an inexplicable 2-0 defeat to already-relegated Cardiff City, at home, on the final day of the season.
A day where no matter the result, the home team is duty-bound to take a lap of the field and show their appreciation for the fans at the end of another campaign.
It’s usually called a lap of honour. But for United on Sunday, it was more a walk of shame.
The France midfielder bore the brunt of it, as he was involved in a verbal altercation with a section of fans ready to shower him with abuse.
It may end up being the moment that pushes Pogba over the edge in terms of his future. Rumours have been swirling this season that he is on his way to Real Madrid, and that plus his listless displays have turned some fans against him.
Compatriot and United legend Patrice Evra said in an interview with Sky Sports on Monday that Pogba is a player who needs to feel the love, and this display of anger from his home fans was certainly far from that.
Pogba was comfortably United’s best player this season. He led the team in goals (16), assists (11), and chances created (89), and if he could speak freely he might say that those latter two numbers could be even higher with better movement and finishing from his team-mates.
Yet it was Luke Shaw who won United’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards. A left-back, considered the team’s best player in a season United conceded their-most ever league goals during the Premier League-era.
Right now, he might wonder what he has to do to get the fans’ love. But Pogba is learning a lesson that several talented players have had to learn before him.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Carlos Tevez was a more loved player among Argentina fans compared to Lionel Messi, simply because he seemingly left it all on the pitch.
Fans appreciate a player whose effort never wanes, even if the overall performance sometimes isn’t up to scratch. And Pogba ranks dead last in distance covered by United midfielders per 90 minutes this season – a statistic in which Juan Mata is the surprising leader and even Nemanja Matic averages nearly a kilometre more than the Frenchman.
Love from the fans is earned.
It’s why Scott McTominay has earned United fans’ applause this season, even though none would argue that he is a better player than his more illustrious team-mate. It’s why many of the United faithful are begrudgingly looking at their fiercest rivals and longing for players who have the work rate Liverpool players show week in, week out under Jurgen Klopp.
Pogba might consider this an unfair metric to measure him by. He knows he’s capable of brilliance.
He’s shown it on several occasions in a United shirt, yet in his best season for the club he’s getting less appreciation than the likes of Shaw, McTominay, or Victor Lindelof, even though the club could be even worse off than the miserable sixth-place finish they’ve managed without the quality Pogba brings to the team.
But just on Sunday, Pogba’s failure to track back as Josh Murphy ran past him allowed the Cardiff player to set up the second goal with relative ease. That’s not the first time Pogba’s lack of effort has cost his side this season.
And if he does go to Madrid, moments like that will only get magnified. The crowd at Santiago Bernabeu is famously merciless.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been whistled and jeered by his home fans, and he’s one of the club’s best-ever players. Scoring arguably the best goal in Champions League history, in a final, to seal an unprecedented third-straight title in the competition, hasn’t been enough to spare Gareth Bale from the boo boys.
If that crowd notices Pogba putting in lackadaisical displays, he’ll have much worse than a handful of irate fans to worry about.
People could argue that tracking back isn’t his game, but that no longer cuts mustard. Apart from Ronaldo and Messi, almost no one gets away with shirking defensive responsibility in the modern game.
Whether United choose to keep him and let Ole Gunnar Solskjaer build around the midfielder, or Pogba forces through an exit from the club, is almost irrelevant at this point.
This is a player who, apart from craving the adulation of fans, also reportedly wants more responsibility. The captain’s armband is supposedly a target for Pogba at United, and may even be offered to him in an attempt to make him stay.
And he certainly talks a good game. Though he can be shrewd in his media interactions, subtly sending messages to Jose Mourinho about the lack of attacking football or to United’s board by talking about teams he could join to challenging for trophies, with contract talks at United upcoming, he’s also quick to put his hand up and acknowledge when he and his team-mates haven’t played well.
Before his altercation with the United fans on Sunday, he was attempting to apologise for the loss to Cardiff.
He’s also the player who delivered the team talk for France in last summer’s World Cup final, inspiring his colleagues ahead of their 4-2 triumph over Croatia.
So Pogba has that side of leadership already in him. But it’s the other side, the one that made Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, and Gary Neville such beloved captains at United, that he still needs to understand.
He may be the best player in his team. But until he can combine his brilliance with the graft that Robson, Keane, and Neville had, the force of personality that those three and players like Eric Cantona possessed, he will always seem a little short of the ideal captain.
The day he pulls that off, he’ll even get to bask in the fans’ love.
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