World record transfer fees demand world record performances. Paul Pogba’s first season in the Manchester United first team took turn for the worse last week after been outplayed by N’Golo Kante against Chelsea in the FA Cup then succumbing to injury in United’s perfunctory dismissal of FC Rostov. He will now get time to rest up on his bed of money, ponder new hairstyles, make videos and reflect upon his disastrous season and how he hasn’t lived up to the demands his fee placed upon him.
I mean look at this:
Pogba’s outputs this season are around half that he put up for Juventus last year, where he was a big contributor and behind only Paulo Dybala for goal contribution. That’s what Man Utd thought they were signing, but instead they got half a Pogba. Would they be in sixth… sorry, er… FIFTH place if he’d have stepped up? No. Would they have meekly exited the cup if he had stepped up when his nine remaining teammates needed him against Chelsea? No. Would Ferguson have retired if Pogba hadn’t betrayed the club that nurtured him and disappeared to Italy as soon as the money got waved under his nose? No. Would Ferguson have built a new team around Pogba, with Paul Scholes playing alongside him, now able to play into his mid-40s because of the energy that Pogba brought to the midfield? Yes. Would Ryan Giggs be waiting by the phone hoping ITV call over the international break? No. Would Paul be the most popular baby name in Manchester by now? Yes.
Of course there are other narratives available and if you’ve made it this far vigourously nodding your head up and down until that last bit when it went a bit weird, then it’s possible that you’ve not read a StatsBomb article before. A bunch of ill-conceived narrative supported by surface stats isn’t our style. So apologies, but here’s the real deal.
Parts of Pogba’s game are actually thriving in Manchester. He is no longer part of a truly dominant team in a league, yet while his goal contribution has suffered, his expected goal contribution (from a-shooting and a-creating point of view) looks just fine. Even allowing for some model error, it would be hard to say that his performances have not deserved more:
How about that? Our old friend variance has stepped in. If this chart looked like the first one then perhaps we would have a problem but, well: it doesn’t.
If we break it down, he’s taking around three shots per game, which across his career is behind only his last season at Juventus, and while his expected goals per shot rate has been on the low side (0.071 per shot), he’s never hit a high rate here and that’s above last season (0.065). Indeed, he’s a player who may have a decent claim to have earned the right to deploy shots from range, as he’s notched 16 times from distance across the last five seasons, against an expectation of around eight. He’s never going to be an optimal shooter who focuses on close range–his position dictates that–and may well be good enough from further out to carry on. And he does get in the box, especially as a threat from set plays; he’s not Andros Townsend.
It is also clear enough that Mourinho is happy enough for Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to take the lion’s share of the attacking work in this side. Despite a broadly more defensive role for United than for Juventus, Pogba to Ibrahimovic (19) is the most common key pass in the league this year, and Ibrahimovic to Pogba isn’t far behind (14). This chart also reflects where he is most usually positioned.
Creatively, he’s hitting numbers ahead of his time at Juventus. His key pass rate of a shade under two per game is career high, and his passes into the final third have risen to around 22 per game ahead of no more than 16 while in Italy. At least part of this is a function of seeing more of the ball and at times being asked to play a more disciplined midfield role: Man Utd Pogba is getting through nearly sixty passes per game compared to Juventus’ Pogba’s rate of nearer forty. Both Juventus 2015-16 and Man Utd 2016-17 are 500+ pass per game teams, yet Pogba is now more involved and it hasn’t decreased his attacking involvement, the opposite is true. Oh and he’s logged more completed throughball shot assists this season than any other player in the big five European leagues too (9).
The only area in which his game has declined is in output, half of which is inevitably outside his control; he can’t affect whether his team mates finish the chances he makes. He has three assists in the league–all to Ibrahimovic– yet the chances he’s created can be valued closer to six goals. Assists can be a notoriously volatile measure and we’ve seen clear examples before. One being Christian Eriksen’s 2014-15 season in which he recorded two assists from 84 key passes in over 3000 minutes of play. Sure enough, his subsequent seasons have seen the outputs to his creativity return, and Pogba’s Italian tenure shows him consistently log assists from a decent volume of chances.
On top of that, the whole team has been struggling to hit a positive skew from it’s shooting. United take a ton of shots–17 per game–but are the lowest scorers of the big six with just 42 goals compared to Man City’s next worst 54. Nobody in the team is running super hot with goals, not even Ibrahimovic who is only slightly ahead of expectation. Antony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are slightly ahead too but each has played limited minutes. Jesse Lingard’s net-busting effort at the weekend finally saw him break his league duck this season and it feels like Mourinho’s inability to settle on an attacking unit beyond Pogba and Ibrahimovic–except perhaps to reject Rooney–may have had an effect on the impact of his support men. Other teams have enjoyed the hot form of their attackers; Chelsea have Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, Tottenham have Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Liverpool have Sadio Mane, Arsenal have Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud. All have shown great form this season but have each landed a mile over their expected goal rates. Nobody at United has to that extent. That’s football.
Paul Pogba turned 24 last week. United paid the premium to get an all round midfielder for his prime years and at a new club with a new manager, his first season has been solid. Expectations of huge output may go alongside his fee, but fail to understand his strengths and what type of player he actually is. He isn’t a one man attack like typical world record transfers and he never will be.
The squad is still in transition and it’s likely that the summer will see another rash of big money talent through the door. Ibrahimovic may have been a sticking plaster for their attack, but central midfield is locked down with Ander Herrera looking a good bet to continue alongside Pogba in the seasons to come. Next time an outlet runs a negative Pogba piece, or some stats get listed and distorted, recall that it’s probably not his actual performance that is driving the hit, but a wide variety of prejudices.
The truth is he’s doing just fine.