Little over two years, Paul Pogba was a frustrated member of the Manchester United reserves, a player who seemed to always be on the periphery of Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team, but able to bridge the gap. Fast-forward to today, and he is a title winner with Juventus and a player that Paris Saint-Germain are rumoured to be willing to invest upwards of £50 million to capture. Not only that, but he also spent a night just a few weeks ago embarrassing the Spanish national team with a display of technical ability the once-mighty Furia Roja could only stand and applaud.
History shows that a player discarded by the wily old manager rarely prospers, yet the French youngster has quickly developed into one of world football’s most sought after talents. For all his success however, Pogba’s arrival in Turin in the summer of 2012 initially appeared to have been mistimed. He landed shortly after the club had not only secured its first title since 2006, but had done so without losing a single game. The foundation for that incredible achievement – according to most observers – was a midfield viewed as one of the best around. With precise passing, intelligent interchanges and intense pressing when it was required, the Bianconeri appeared to have the perfect blend in their central trio and could offer little room for a 19-year-old Old Trafford misfit.
At the heart of it, Andrea Pirlo was a man reborn. Having spent ten years with Milan, he moved to Juventus in 2011 and the incredible passing, touch and vision that had always been his hallmark returned to the forefront of the Italian football landscape after accepting that new challenge. Alongside him, Arturo Vidal blossomed into one of the best defensive midfielders on the continent and completing the trio was Turin-born Claudio Marchisio.
Contrary to reports, Pogba’s move was proven to never be about money, as he signed a four year contract that saw him earn less than all but two of his new team-mates. He also has allayed the fears many observers had concerning his attitude, often cited as the problem behind the talented prospect failing to convince Ferguson of his worth. He now displays a humility that former coach Antonio Conte said allows him to “listen to the advice given by me and by his teammates.” From his impressive debut against Chievo on 22 September 2012, he went on to enjoy a superb breakthrough season, amassing thirty eight appearances and scoring five goals.
His tally involved match winners against Napoli, Bologna and Udinese, ensuring his debut campaign was one regular watchers of Juventus will never forget. He was, initially, used as an alternative to Pirlo in the deep lying playmaker role, but Pogba also spent time alongside the Italian, replacing either Vidal or Marchisio. His physical presence and energy came to the forefront in those roles and, rather than displacing any of them, he has simply become an equal, as the four men rotate in and out of the line-up.
That impact also saw France coach Didier Deschamps hand him his maiden appearance for the national team in March last year, and Pogba has become a regular ever since, a central figure in their World Cup squad. It was not all without incident however, with the Paris-born player suspended for spitting at an opponent who slapped him, and dropped for a trip to Pescara. That latter misdemeanour stemmed from Pogba twice being late to training, but he was quick to make amends, displaying a maturity he was often accused of lacking in the English tabloid press.
Promising to do his utmost to make sure he did not repeat the same mistake, Conte took the opposite approach, barely mentioning the lateness in public. He treated the youngster very differently than Sir Alex Ferguson, who repeatedly criticised him to the press and maintained a cool distance from the player he signed from Le Havre back in 2009. Blaming broken promises concerning playing time for the collapse of his relationship with the iconic manager, it is easy to understand Pogba’s frustration when looking back on what Ferguson told United’s official website in August 2011. Speaking before that season began, the now-retired Scot told them;
“I mean if we hold Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave, you know, in a couple of years’ time when his contract is going to finish. So we have to give him the opportunity to see how he can do in the first-team and he’s got great ability.”
Yet the campaign brought him just seventy minutes of Premier League action over three brief substitute appearances, and Pogba revealed the contrast with in an interview shortly after his debut. Conte had simply challenged his ambition as the midfielder recounted his first conversation with the Juve boss, telling France Football that the former captain had pushed all the right buttons; “He said ‘If you think you can establish yourself here, come, and we’ll see if you’re able to do it, show us what you can do.’ He pushed me, he struck where it was needed to convince me. I like being given challenges like that. I like indirect provocation.”
His effort to raise his game and prove he belongs on such a stage did not disappoint Conte, and he began his second campaign arguably in even better form. Perhaps his most important contribution came in the September 2013 derby with local rivals Torino, when he was chosen in place of Pirlo. That task that has proven to be beyond many midfielders, as the classy veteran is viewed as one of the greatest passers in the game today, stroking the ball around with unrivalled vision and superb technique. A two time Champions League winner and an integral part of Italy’s 2006 World Cup win, Pirlo has become just as essential to Juventus, and embodies the very style of play responsible for their transformation under Conte.
Joining a team that had gone from two consecutive seventh place finishes to being undefeated champions just twelve months later is a daunting task, yet Pogba exuded the same confidence that radiates from the man he replaced. He controlled the derby with a wonderful display that belied the fact he was still only 20 years old and showcased everything good about his game. He protected the defence, passed the ball superbly and, to cap it all, popped up to head in the winning goal. It endeared him even more to the Juventus fans, and with Pirlo now another year older, Pogba’s ability to fill that role is now vital to the Bianconeri.
His team-mates recognise his ability and, when asked recently which player had most surprised him during his time at Juventus, Giorgio Chiellini replied without hesitation; “Paul Pogba.” Speaking with 8by8 Magazine, the Italian international went on to say that the Frenchman “came in here, got his head down and worked like a true professional, but with the spontaneity of a 20-year-old.” It is no surprise that Manchester United losing out on a player capable of ensuring Pirlo isn’t missed has been lamented by their fans, but it seems the Frenchman was inspired by the manner of his exit. The desire to prove his choice to leave was not wrong, to supplant one of the established Bianconeri trio in midfield and repay the faith of Conte is what drove him. The autobiography Sir Alex Ferguson released last year infamously contained not a single mention of the player he appeared to give up on, but Paul Pogba is too busy writing the next chapter of his own story to have noticed.