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There Are No More Excuses for Paul Pogba

Last season, Manchester United broke the transfer record to bring the French midfielder to England. This summer, the team spent to make his life on the field easier. Will he be able to live up to the enormous expectations?

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba with his mouth open Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We were impatient with Paul Pogba. By we, I mostly mean not me, as I was not the one bringing up his price tag with every draw, loss, Instagram post, missed chance, or injudicious pass. Manchester United had a sixth place Premier League finish and EFL Cup and Europa League final victories last season. Maybe it wasn’t the Premier League title that’s supposed to follow spending €105 million on a single midfielder. For all that money, to say nothing of a glitzy #POGBACK music video, it’s only instinctual (if unreasonable) to assume you’ve bought an emphatic and immediate course correction (Manchester United were boring under Louis van Gaal), or at least a top-four finish, neither of which happened.

Going from Serie A to playing every meaningful minute in the Premier League with a heartbreaking stop at the Euros in between was always going to make getting Pogba’s acclimatization rough, but I forgive you your doubts. We—my larger, superiorly talented French Muslim cousin and I—forgive you. And you can move on to complaining about Neymar da Silver Money Bags Junior now. Though I should say, in the interest of balance, that Pogba could stand to play just 5 percent more simply. Maybe 10. OK, like, 20:

Real Madrid won another trophy Wednesday, by the way. They have won, without looking, 500 of them this calendar year, 20 this month, and at least one already today. This particular piece of hardware happened to be the UEFA Super Cup, a tradition in which the Champions League winners (Madrid) play the Europa League winners (United) for the title of undisputed heavyweight champions of Europe, a full summer after that's already sort of been decided. Isco scored the winner, and United, who’ve spent the GNP of a small island nation since José Mourinho took charge, in order to be competitive at home and abroad, scored a moral victory. In fits and starts—say, the first and final 10 minutes or so—as they pressed and probed and inconvenienced the Spanish giants, it was possible to trick yourself into thinking that Gálacticos North stood a reasonable chance of winning against the flagship Gálacticos on that sticky night in Skopje. Hah, no.

For what it's worth, Madrid aren’t the standard of competition United will be playing against regularly, and, even so, they looked decent for being hopelessly outgunned. Marcus Rashford is still going to be king someday. Henrikh Mkhitaryan looked threatening. Romelu Lukaku’s first touch wasn’t nearly as awful as advertised. The striker, formerly of Everton, coolly tucked away what would ultimately be a consolation goal in the 62nd minute, and if he’d converted the sitter he missed earlier in the evening, maybe the game would’ve gone to the wonderfully unpredictable world of extra time, where anything, usually the dumbest thing, can happen. But as long as we’re mourning missed chances, Madrid could’ve easily won something like 6-2. (And United could be going into this year’s Champions League through the front door instead of through the back.)

Mourinho said it himself after a 1-0 preseason loss to Barcelona, though not in so few words: Clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid are UP HERE, and Manchester United is, still, down here, regardless of how much money United have thrown at the problem (nearly half a billion euros over the last three windows).

United’s brightest spot was Nemanja Matic—the most recent of their three summer signings, and perhaps the most important, if you ask Phil Neville. Matic steadied what can often be a hectic midfield, doing all the responsible things that aren’t fun to write about. Having him around, doing most of the tackling and tracking and challenging and the less inventive part of the distributing, should free up the guy with the blond streaks to do the stuff he’s best at. Down the line.

In the European Super Cup, like in a few of last campaign’s bigger games—most memorably an awful night in January, against Liverpool—Pogba was not great. Against Madrid, he wasn’t so much bad as he was inconsequential and occasionally dangerous, a singular meh performance that could be written off as just that instead of it being some greater cause for concern, if he were anyone else.

But players that break world transfer records don’t really get to be “anyone else.” The line goes, with great disinterest in how many players are on a field together, if the team paid a lot for you, you should be able to lift a car off of it on your own if need be. And that’s … not how things worked out. While everyone was still holding their breath from Casemiro clanging a free header off of the crossbar early in the game, Pogba gathered it up and galloped into a counter that could’ve ended in several different, likely more successful ways than a blocked shot from 25 yards out. He was all alone against Keylor Navas in the second half and nodded an equalizer directly into the Madrid keeper’s hands. Those are the Big Ones, both of which you’ve already seen, here, in this post. It seemed like Pogba’s touches ran long and his passes weren’t weighted quite right, if they were on target at all. He was, to sum it up, out of tune.

None of this tells us much about whether he’s good. He is good, just not in the ways you’d expect, and we know this already. When he’s on the ball, whatever the more difficult, inadvisable choice is, he usually makes that. All of these things—the flicks, the turns, trying to dribble out of his own defensive third—work as often as they don’t, which is frustrating, but then he’ll do something like hunt down Luka Modric in open field and start a new attacking move all on his own. There’s nothing he can’t do and there’s nothing he won’t do, except, of course, play simply. This is amplified by the fact that he plays for Mourinho, who generally likes his football in a spartan and unemotional way. Having had a full season and preseason together, they’ve gotten more used to each other, Pogba and Mourinho. The best evidence of that was a brief cut to the touchline after Pogs looked over Jesse Lingard for that 25-yarder. Lingard was annoyed, Mkhitaryan, also an option there, was understandably upset, and Mourinho clapped in encouragement.

Pogba now has Matic (instead of Michael Carrick or [shudders] Marouane Fellaini) at his back, Lukaku in front of him, and possibly (probably not) Ivan Perisic to his left before transfer-deadline day. It’ll be interesting to see what Pogba does with all of this newfound peace of mind, and what that’ll mean for a brawny United team that looks way more ominous now than it did at this time last year. In any case, the excuses are drying up. Last season’s struggles can be explained away as Pogba getting reacquainted with the rude, dispassionate pace of the Premier League, a new manager, and a team that looked nothing like the one Pogba left in 2012. There’s none of that to lean on anymore. We’ve yet to see the best out of him, and this year, with this cast, it’s poised to show. It has to.