Confidence, impatience and prodigious brilliance: Paul Pogba's rise to the top
Outside of Chaddesden Wood Nature Reserve, a few peaceful walking trails and a nunnery, there isn’t too much going on in the suburb of Oakwood.
But Manchester United academy graduate Ryan Tunnicliffe remembers this sleepy, secluded part of the world as the scene of the exact moment when he realised that Paul Pogba was heading for the top.
The date was March 19, 2011 and Manchester United Under-18s were at Moor Farm Training Centre to face Derby County's youngsters. With the Rams 2-1 up, the ball broke to Pogba on the edge of the box. Wearing the captain’s armband and the No.8 shirt, what the Frenchman did next took Tunnicliffe’s breath away.
“There were three or four people around him,” the Fulham player tells FFT, “and he does a bit of skill to work his way out of a few tight angles, then whips it into the top corner. I thought: ‘wow, what a player’”
The game ended 2-2 and the goal became a YouTube hit, further evidence of this rough diamond on United’s hands. Both Tunnicliffe and Pogba would play key roles in helping the Red Devils to win the 2011 FA Youth Cup, beating Chelsea 6-3 in a thrilling two-legged semi-final and Sheffield United in the final.
Michael Keane, another prominent member of that Youth Cup-winning side, was equally impressed. “I remember the first time he came to train with us,” Keane, now at Burnley, tells FFT.
“We had an 11-a-side match and he dominated it, to be honest. He was pinging the ball with his right foot, left foot – everyone was really impressed.
“In some of the sessions, you’d just sit back and think: ‘Oh my god, what am I seeing here?!’ His feet are so good, it’s a joke – and he’s got a good shot on him as well. Around the training ground, too, he was always happy and chirpy, in a good mood. He was just a great guy to play with and be around.”
Speed of ascent
At 21, Zidane was an uncapped youngster finding his feet at Bordeaux after moving from Cannes
Both players knew then that his “loud, pretty gangly” team-mate could reach the heights of world football, but what they couldn’t foresee was the speed of this ascent. A year-and-a-half (and, in saying ‘no’ to Alex Ferguson, one very big decision) later, Pogba was making international headlines en route to a first league title – only it wasn’t in the red, black and white of United, but the bianconeri of the bustling midfielder’s new home, Juventus.
“I changed the 4-4-2 originally because Arturo Vidal was so good he couldn’t be dropped,” then-Juve boss Antonio Conte commented after Pogba helped the Old Lady to their 29th league title in his debut season in Italy, just two years after that Under-18s game at Oakwood. “I am in a similar situation now with Paul Pogba. He’s got excellent potential and could well go on to become one of the best players in the world.”
The details over Pogba’s Old Trafford exit to Turin have been dissected before. All the crying in the world isn’t going to clean up that spilt milk. What’s remarkable is how much Pogba has already achieved and how quickly he’s entered the conversation when it comes to discussing the best players today.
At 21, Zinedine Zidane was an uncapped youngster finding his feet at Bordeaux after moving from Cannes. Michel Platini at that age was still eight years away from his first scudetto at Juventus and five years from his first top-flight league title with Saint-Etienne. Jean-Pierre Papin is another French Ballon d’Or winner, but aged 21 he was plodding along in Ligue 2 with Valenciennes. Pogba has already won three league titles with Juventus, two Supercoppas, been awarded the Best Young Player at a World Cup and, most recently, shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or. Different eras, sure. But the facts remain.
By the time the next World Cup rolls into town, the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly that currently has an iron-like stranglehold on the football world’s individual honours will, in all likelihood, be loosening its grip. Ronaldo will be 33, Messi approaching 31. Is the kid from Roissy-en-Brie, nicknamed Il Polpo Paul (Paul the Octopus) due to his long limbs, next in line to become the world’s best player? And what makes him so good?
It’s difficult to know where to begin when describing Pogba’s precocious talent. Scouts often say that when you see a great player for the first time, you don’t base it on any rational analysis – you just know. Ferguson touched on this in his autobiography when he discussed seeing Cristiano Ronaldo for the first time.
“One night I was watching a movie, White Fang, the Jack London book about going to Klondike in search of gold. That’s what it must be like for a scout. You’re standing watching a game on Saturday and you see a George Best, a Ryan Giggs or a Bobby Charlton. That’s what I felt that day in Lisbon: a revelation.”
He is a warrior with a good spirit. He has everything it takes
A tall, rangy midfielder with a peacock-like strut, Pogba possesses perhaps the rarest quality in football: that element of untold promise. Frank Rijkaard experienced it with Messi. “From the moment Messi was introduced, we all knew he was a unique talent,” he told Sport. “I remember Deco and Ronaldinho realised how special he was, and they took him under their wing.”
Diego Maradona tells the story of how his youth team, Los Cebollitas, lost the final of the Nacional championship to a team from Pinto, managed by a man called Elias Ganem. “When his son, Cesar, saw how upset I was he came up to me and said: ‘Don’t cry, brother. You’re going to be the best in the world.’”
Watching Pogba provides that same feeling. A box-to-box midfielder who marries the commanding, assured deep-lying presence of an Andrea Pirlo with the attacking menace of a Frank Lampard or Paul Scholes, the 22-year-old's athleticism, poise, authority and technique make him the prototypical modern midfielder.
Some of the game’s greatest midfielders agree. “He is a warrior with a good spirit,” said France coach Didier Deschamps, a distinguished midfielder and World Cup winner himself, of the man he quickly made a regular at senior international level. “He has everything it takes.”
Antonio Conte won five scudettos and the Champions League playing at the heart of Juventus’s midfield, and as the man who worked with Pogba for two years after convincing him to join the Italian giants, he’s certain of Pogba’s immeasurable promise.
“Pogba is a modern player, as he is strong, fast and has stamina,” Conte raved last August. “He’s also humble, so he listens to the advice given by me and by his team-mates. I saw his interviews in which he said he wanted to become the best in the world. I am happy with that, because in my view he can be the best.”
“I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he can win the Ballon d’Or,” Pavel Nedved, himself a former winner of the award, commented in 2013. Patrick Vieira is another to sing Pogba’s praises. The former Arsenal midfielder won 107 caps for France, but told L’Equipe that the man dubbed his heir in France’s midfield is “more offensive than me and perhaps better technically,” continuing: “That Manchester City did not take him when he left United was a mistake because he’s an extraordinary player.”