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The Passing Magic of Paul Pogba

The Manchester United midfielder can distribute the ball any way you want it

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Without timeouts or the rigidity of playbooks, soccer reads like a continuous brainstorm. Twenty-two players on a pitch, poking at the same problem from all sorts of angles, and seeing what works. Safe, square passes build to risky through balls that just might crack a defense open. The rub is, those through balls fail more often than they succeed. As a viewer, you wait out an entire match for that one small piece of genius that can change the complexion of the whole game, or at least absolve the other 89 minutes and 59 seconds of things almost happening.

One daring midfielder — maybe one with particularly daring hair, and shiny cleats — opens himself a bit of space with an unnaturally sticky first touch, and a game that might’ve been boring you suddenly demands your attention.

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Now, this wasn’t a Paul Pogba assist. It didn’t show up on the neatly colored recap graphic once the final whistle had blown. It was just a created chance, which doesn’t matter all that much to the history books. But a chance can’t be taken — that is, Juan Mata can’t whip a low shot into the bottom-left corner to put Manchester United one up on Arsenal — unless the chance is created first. So really, Pogba is the hero here. At least for my purposes, he is. Because — are you ready for this? Are you sitting down? Don’t even bother because you’ll just stand right up when you hear this.

I am biased. I love Paul Pogba like he’s family. It feels good to get this off my chest.

If you were to ask me, any time the Manchester United and France midfielder does anything — whatever that anything might be — I’ll usually either find an excuse for it, or praise it as the greatest thing to happen since the earliest resemblance of what we currently know as soccer was played in ancient Egypt with balls made of linen.

Sometimes that’s a bit of an exaggeration:

And other times, not so much:

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Picking the ball up from deep and facing downfield, where he’s at his best, Pogba sees and exploits space in ever newer and more interesting ways, and with his imposing 6-foot-3 frame he can swat away the kind of pressure that makes great players look average. When a move is building, the 23-year-old is also prone to invent, rather than to simply keep possession, which means he can work to the benefit or detriment of his team. But rarely — when playing in his appropriate attack-oriented central role — is he inconsequential. In a game full of seismographs, Pogba is a lightning rod, and if you don’t enjoy watching him do Pogba things, whether he’s successful in doing them or not, it’s only because you hate fun. And fly-ass hair.

That said, here are the top five Paul Pogba passes. If I’ve left your favorite out, it’s only because I recall these passes like slices of pizza I’ve eaten. Meaning: These are the best for now, but there will unquestionably be better ones to come.

Manchester United vs. Southampton, 2016

Last summer Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined on a free, Pogba joined for the price of about 200 1-year-old thoroughbred racehorses, and suddenly the Red Devils had two-and-a-half world-class talents. Surprisingly, broad, sweeping change didn’t come to Old Trafford as right-fucking-nowish as United fans might’ve wanted. Pogba took a while to adapt to the English game again; Ibrahimovic just turned 35. And the strength of those two alone hasn’t yet been enough to redeem an entire team that still smacks of Louis van Gaal, and employs Marouane Fellaini.

The side under José Mourinho hasn’t been all that much better; in fact, compared to this point last season they’re worse off. But they have occasionally been pretty easy on the eyes. Again, mostly because of Pogba and Ibrahimovic. Look at this little glimmer of hope:

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It didn’t come off, but it was a glimpse of what Pogba is capable of creating when at his best, doing his free-association thing. He drags the ball across his body, feints a through ball to Luke Shaw, and opts to lift a pass onto the head of a surging Mata, making United well, fun, for a change.

On second thought, it’s good that this didn’t come off. If Zlatan would’ve finished that scissor volley, I might’ve died immediately.

Juventus vs. Manchester City, 2015

What makes this so amazing, like all Pogba highlights, is the reasons it shouldn’t have worked. With Bacary Sagna nipping at his heels on the top of the box, Pogba could’ve easily lost possession if his first touch was anything less than flypaper-y. I’d say the same of his second touch, but at this point, Martin Demichelis hadn’t been a threat to anyone but his own team in at least two years. And oh my word, the Cruyff pass. It was so unexpected and left of center that even Paulo Dybala was surprised by it.

At least it seemed that way, since Dybala skied the finish and ruined everything, dammit.

France vs. Cameroon, 2016

This is exactly David Beckham–esque, but strangely, that feels like an undersell.

You know in Wanted, when James McAvoy curves a bullet around Angelina Jolie’s head and a hanging slab of meat on a hook to hit a target on the far wall? Pogba put a 50-yard ball on Olivier Giroud’s foot inside the 6-yard box during an international friendly against Cameroon this past summer. It was exactly like that.

Juventus vs. Gladbach, 2015

YOU.

MUST.

BE JOKING.

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France vs. Ivory Coast, 2016

Shut up, everybody SHUT UP. I have something to say:

Switching the point of attack usually plays out as more of a reset. In the time it takes an aerial ball to travel across the pitch, the defense can comfortably readjust, unless the ball is driven and perfectly weighted. Those driven balls are normally hit from a standstill, from which a player can get the ball out of his feet with a setup touch, gather his thoughts, and spy that winger on the opposite touchline.

Seldom, if ever, is it done on the run.

Even more seldom, if ever, is it done on the run and with the outside of the foot.

Never — ever, ever, ever — is it done on the run, with the outside of the foot, and curled perfectly into the path of a charging outside back, essentially continuing the same attacking move without missing a beat.

Therefore, this is the greatest pass ever passed in all of footballing history. That’s just how it is now. Argue with me if you must.

An earlier version of this piece misstated Manchester United’s opponent in a 2016 game; it was Southampton, not Liverpool.