Some would call it a superficial move, others a significant one. Whether squad numbers are irrelevant or important, though, there is little doubt that Juventus's decision to hand Paul Pogba the historic No.10 shirt previously adorned by such greats as Alessandro Del Piero, Michel Platini and Roberto Baggio last summer showed how important the Frenchman had become to his team’s fortunes.
The lofty expectations seemed to be adversely affecting Pogba at first. Carlos Tevez, the last man to wear the No.10 on his back at the Juventus Stadium, was one of three major departures in the summer, with Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo also moving on.
Max Allegri’s side initially struggled to cope with the loss of such key men: a shock defeat at home to Udinese on the opening day was followed by a run of only one win in five Serie A matches. After six games, the defending champions found themselves down in 15th place.
“I am not weighed down by the shirt,” Pogba insisted in October, a few days after a 0-0 draw with Inter in which Juventus dropped points for the fifth time in seven games. “It’s just a number. If it (the number) had been anything else, nobody would say anything.”
Whatever the reason for his below-par displays, the fact that Pogba was having little influence on the team could not be denied. Injuries to fellow midfielders Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio certainly didn't help, but the former Manchester United man frequently seemed lost without Vidal, Pirlo and Tevez alongside him. Just one goal and an assist in Juve’s opening 10 matches was evidence of his peripheral performances. For the first time in years, questions were being asked of both player and club.
Those questions were answered emphatically: since slipping to a 1-0 defeat at Sassuolo in late October, Juve have won their last 14 league matches – a club record – and Pogba has gradually got much closer to his best. He's scored four times, added as many assists and delivered many more masterful showings in the engine room.
The Bianconeri have climbed from the bottom half to within touching distance of the Serie A summit, and have the chance to leapfrog leaders Napoli with a victory in the pair’s crunch clash in Turin on Saturday evening. Pogba, who has never finished a season in anywhere other than first place since moving to Italy in 2012, has another league winner’s medal in his sights.
“In terms of my position on the pitch, I’m not a classic No.10,” the 22-year-old told La Stampa last month. “I consider myself a midfielder [but] it is an honour to wear the number of so many Ballon d’Or winners. When I look at the shirt, however, I don't see the number or even my name – I only see Juventus.”
Dribbling from deep against Inter
In the same interview, Pogba also touched on the issue of his own poor form in the early stages of 2015/16. “Without Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez, this is a different team,” he said. “There is more responsibility on others and we must focus on working as a unit. Before, I had Pirlo by my side and one of our opponents would always mark him; now they put that same marker on me.”
It was a revealing line that explained why Pogba had encountered difficulties in stamping his authority on proceedings in the same effortless manner he'd managed in previous years. As reflected in his promotion to a more iconic shirt number, Pogba’s status at the club had switched from that of an important supporting cast member to the bona fide lead star, a change that required a bit of time to get used to.
Scoring against Torino
The turnaround for both Juve and Pogba came in the Derby della Mole victory over Torino three-and-a-half months ago, when the France international opened the scoring and was heavily involved in the move that led to Juan Cuadrado’s dramatic winner in second-half stoppage time. Since then, Allegri’s men haven't dropped a single point in Serie A, with Pogba an essential part of a winning run unprecedented in the club’s history.
The sense of confidence and self-belief is back, so too the swagger that marks Pogba as a truly special talent. His individual performance in the 4-0 win over Chievo two weeks ago was up there with the very best seen in Italy this season: Pogba scored one, set up another and generally dominated through the combination of physical and technical gifts that make him so difficult to stop.
Indeed, while Pogba is inventive enough to act as Juve’s chief playmaker, he also possesses the energy, drive and stamina to play a box-to-box role. Allegri – a coach who is never afraid to tinker with his team’s system and style – is perhaps tempted to make full use of Pogba’s range of qualities by adapting his role depending on the opposition awaiting his side each week.
His job in the upcoming meeting with Napoli is likely to depend on whether Khedira recovers from an abductor injury in time, but Allegri will be confident that Pogba will deliver the goods regardless of the specific functions he is asked to fulfil.
“Today it [the No.10 shirt] is being worn by a very young and very talented player who half of Europe want to sign,” Del Piero, Juventus’s all-time record goalscorer, said of his former shirt last year. “Let’s give him time to learn, to make mistakes and to grow.”
After hitting a sticky patch in the first few months of 2015/16, Pogba has bounced back to prove his value once more. As Juve eye a fifth successive Scudetto this season, the most sought-after young player in the world is continuing to mature – just like his price tag.
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