Tottenham’s 2-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday was tinged with sadness. It was not just due to the fact that Spurs played out their final ever game at White Hart Lane before their stadium move, but also because Paul Pogba was forced to miss the match after the tragic passing of his father. His understandable absence meant United were severely weakened for their tough trip to north London.
While Pogba has perhaps not lived up to the sky-high standards expected of him on the back of his record-breaking move to Manchester United, there is no denying that he has made an immediate impact in the wake of his return to Old Trafford. In yet another transitional campaign for the club, the France international has been one of a handful of standout stars, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera. There is even an argument to be made that the young midfielder is the club’s most important player at present, with his recent absence further highlighting his influence under Jose Mourinho.
The pressure on Pogba to hit the ground running was always going to be high. After all the fuss surrounding his probable return to Manchester, supporters were enthused when the deal was confirmed. Following a few underwhelming outings, Pogba soon began to live up to the billing as Mourinho built his team around the 24-year-old; his faith in the midfielder has been repaid, particularly when Herrera and one of Marouane Fellaini or Michael Carrick have provided the necessary defensive solidity behind him.
This has allowed the Frenchman to thrive in the final third. Granted, Pogba has just four goals and three assists in the Premier League this season, but it is not for the want of trying. Only Kevin De Bruyne (9) has hit the woodwork more times than Pogba (6) in England’s top tier this term, with fine margins separating a mediocre goal return and double figures for the former Juventus man. He is also top for chance creation (55 key passes) of all United players this season, and had it not been for his team’s wayward finishing, his assist tally would be higher.
A conversion rate of just 9.1 per cent is one of the poorer returns in the league, while United have missed more clear-cut goalscoring chances (50) than any other Premier League outfit. Indeed, with a little more cutting edge in front of goal, United would probably have already wrapped up a top-four spot instead of having to rely on next week's Europa League final against Ajax. Yet with the Dutch giants now standing between United and another trophy, Mourinho will once again look to Pogba to make the difference in a big game.
You only have to look at United’s performances without their record signing to grasp just how pivotal Pogba is to the team: the Red Devils have won only two of eight league games he has not started this season, while they have averaged fewer goals per game without him (1.13) than with him (1.54). His attacking input has clearly aided the team, and when he is unavailable United lack the same offensive thrust.
His rapid train of thought is also a huge boost to United; Pogba is able to pry apart an opposition backline, either by maximising his creative qualities or by using his power to punch a hole in the defence. When he has been unable to feature, the team lacks someone to float between the lines, pick up the ball and create chances for teammates. Yes, Mourinho can call upon Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata to provide a link between the midfield and attack, but neither has the same lasting effect behind the strikers as Pogba.
Mkhitaryan has a tendency to drift in and out of games and can often be found on the periphery of matches, while Mata can easily be marked out of games. Pogba, though, combines the ideal blend of physical presence with an ability to provide the necessary ammunition for the forward line, thus making it more difficult to keep him at bay. It is no wonder that Mourinho has strived to make Pogba the heartbeat of his favoured XI.
With a strong season at Old Trafford behind him and a proper summer of rest to look forward to, Pogba has the necessary tools to take his game to the next level in 2017/18. Having impressed this term, one would expect the world's most expensive player to maintain his upward trajectory and fire United back towards the summit of English football next season.