It never takes long for a young footballer with some obvious ability—particularly one who stands 6 foot 2 and handles himself with composure well beyond his 19 years—to engage the hype machine that is the Italian media. Throw in a pair of first-team goals in 11 days and the superlatives will come faster than the presses can print them.
Of course, there is the occasional youngster for whom the enthusiasm is justified.
Five months shy of his 20th birthday, Paul Pogba has broken into one of the premiere midfields in European football and made an immediate impact. He has been a difference-maker. And this is all the more impressive given that when he starts, one of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal doesn’t.
Cue the plaudits.
“Uncontrollable,” wrote Diego Costa in La Repubblica following Pogba’s 92nd-minute winner for Juventus against Bologna on Wednesday. (The same writer also made a rather distasteful comparison to Hurricane Sandy, saying the player had been “a 20-minute hurricane against the Bologna defense. A ‘Sandy’ called Pogba.”) A column in La Gazzetta dello Sport went so far as to suggest Pogba could be “even better” than Patrick Vieira.
But perhaps the most qualified praise came from Bologna manager Stefano Pioli, who could only watch from the dugout as Pogba took complete control of the match, putting in a maestro’s performance in midfield and marshalling an attack that pounded on the door the entire second half.
“Pogba is an incredible player,” remarked the 47-year-old after the final whistle. “He impressed me with his quality, physicality and personality. He’s not just a player for the future; he’s already such a strong player right now.”
Pogba, himself, addressed reporters after the match, humbly stating that while he felt good about his one-goal, one-assist display, he still needed to “look ahead” and put in significant work if he had any serious aspirations of cracking the Juventus first team on a regular basis.
“I still need to improve, and I’m reminded of this by all the members of the technical staff,” he said, adding that he’d “be ready” if he was tapped to start against Inter Milan in the Derby d’Italia on Saturday. “If the coach tells me that I’m playing, then I’ll try to be ready,” he said. “It’s the same thing if I have to sit on the bench and come on during the game as a substitute.”
Pogba did a lot of sitting during the last of his three years at Manchester United. A regular in the under-18 squad after joining United’s youth setup as a 16-year-old in 2009, the Frenchman was promoted to the reserves ahead of last season with an eye to getting a look in the first team.
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson revealed his admiration for the then-18-year-old in an interview with the club’s official website in August 2011, saying Pogba had been “showing great promise” and admitting the coaching staff were “quite positive about him.”
He also seemed to recognise the danger of letting his midfield starlet rot on the bench or languish in the reserves, both in terms of wasting talent and getting into contract trouble.
“If we hold Pogba back,” he wondered aloud, “what’s going to happen?” He’s going to leave. You know, in a couple of years’ time his contract is going to finish. So we have to give him the opportunity to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got great ability, plus he’s got the physique and athleticism.”
For whatever reason, Ferguson never made good on his pledge. Over the next nine months Pogba wasn’t handled a single, senior start—his United career limited to just seven substitute appearances, only three of which came in the Premier League.
Perhaps, as Pogba reportedly positioned himself for a possible move out of the club in the summer, Ferguson simply didn’t see the point in giving him minutes that could otherwise be awarded to more committed players. Perhaps, with the title race going down to the wire, he wasn’t comfortable with a teenager in the middle of the park.
Pogba, for his part, offered only a coded explanation for his Old Trafford departure when questioned about the matter on Wednesday.
“I didn’t renew with United because I couldn’t reach an agreement with Alex Ferguson. That’s why I decided to accept Juventus’ offer,” he said.
That offer ended up being in excess of £1 million per season thru 2016. United simply had no interest in paying such high wages to a mostly unproven quantity, although as late as last March Ferguson was still saying Pogba was “a first-team player—there’s no question about that.” A strange statement given that the manager had never once offered the player a full debut.
Not that Pogba will be much concerned with the past. While United figured they were negotiating with a future prospect, Juventus recognised the contributions the 19-year-old could make straight away—contributions that have helped keep the Bianconeri atop the ledger while maintaining a Serie A unbeaten run that reached 49 games thanks to Pogba’s goal and assist against Bologna.
United, meanwhile, continue to lose midfield battles as frequently as Juventus win them. And while Ferguson keeps the faith in Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes while crossing his fingers that Tom Cleverley will turn into some sort of midfield saviour, Pogba is chipping inventive passes over the opposition defense for Emanuele Giaccherini to head on to Fabio Quagliarella.
In Paul Pogba, Juventus have their midfield engine for the next 10 years—the sort of player United had for a time, cheaped-out on and now couldn’t be more desperate for.