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01st Feb 2018

Spurs win showed why United fans must stop comparing Pogba to De Bruyne

Just stop doing it

Robert Redmond

Some Manchester United fans have developed a new hobby recently.

Almost any mention of Kevin De Bruyne online is met with a United supporter asking why Paul Pogba isn’t receiving similar praise. They are seemingly blind to the fact that De Bruyne has received more praise than Pogba this season because he has had a better season, and is a better player. In fact, it’s not fair on Pogba to compare him to the Manchester City midfielder at the moment.

The two may be equally talented, but De Bruyne’s performances are clearly on another level. He is the complete midfielder, Pogba isn’t and that was evident on Wednesday night in the 2-0 defeat to Spurs, when the United midfielder had what was probably his worst game for the club.

Following City’s 4-1 win over Spurs in December, Pep Guardiola eulogised De Bruyne’s performance, and rightly so because the Belgian midfielder was incredible. He scored, set up a goal and dominated the game, overcoming Spurs’ attempts to rough him up. However, the City manager reserved particular praise for his contribution when his team didn’t have the ball, in the defensive phase of play – an aspect of Pogba’s play that was extremely poor against Spurs on Wednesday night.

“Kevin is one of the most talented players and you see how he runs without the ball,” Guardiola said.

You cannot imagine how good he plays with the ball, but he runs like a player in the conference league. It’s a good example for the young players, for our academy, for Phil Foden, for Brahim (Diaz). They know how good Kevin De Bruyne is. And when they see how he runs and he fights without the ball, that is the best example.”

One could also compare Pogba’s display against Spurs to a conference player, but not in a good way. De Bruyne ran like a non-league player against Spurs, while Pogba wandered around like a starstruck player plucked from the conference and asked to fill in against one of the best teams in England. That may seem harsh, but the French midfielder’s tactical indiscipline, and unwillingness to work hard to overcome such a shortcoming, was obvious throughout.

Jose Mourinho must have wanted to pull his hair out watching Pogba, and they had a very heated discussion during the game, before the United manager correctly substituted him. The staggering thing about the dispute between the pair was that Pogba was actually arguing with Mourinho, as though he didn’t recognise that he was playing poorly and constantly out of position. He had no reason to contradict anything his manager said.

Pogba did a lot wrong during the 2-0 loss when United were out of possession. Here he is during the build-up to Phil Jones’ own-goal. The French midfielder is ahead of play, constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time and drawn to the ball like a moth to a flame, leaving a big space behind him which Nemanja Matic can’t fill on his own. This prompts Chris Smalling to step forward, which causes Jones to push across, and makes Ashley Young at left-back tuck in.

This frees up space for Kieran Trippier (who wasn’t tracked by Alexis Sanchez). Christian Eriksen spots him out wide, and Trippier aims for Harry Kane with a cross, but Jones reaches it first and turns the ball into his own net with a clumsy clearance.

Jones obviously made a mess of his clearance, but the initial fault for the goal is partly with Pogba, who was out of position and stood around ball-watching as the move unfolded in front of him. When he went to press the Spurs player, he did so unconvincingly, with little aggression, and left a big space behind him, he was taken out of the game and didn’t seem to try make up for his error.

This tactical indiscipline, while ball-watching and casually strolling around the pitch, was a common feature of his performance on the night. He never seemed to look towards the space he was vacating, or at the dangerous Spurs players running into the space, all of which contributed to United appearing disjointed and vulnerable.

Here’s a perfect example of that. This passage of play led to David de Gea saving a shot from Kane, and look at where Pogba is, completely taken out of the game and about 20 yards from where he should be.

He’s also looking towards the ball and seemingly blind to Son Heung-min sprinting into the space he should be occupying. This is not an image one would associate with a Mourinho team playing away from home.

Now look at Pogba – he’s jogging and still blind to Son. The 24-year-old is a phenomenal athlete, but has yet to break into a sprint in this passage of play, despite witnessing a dangerous Spurs attack bear down on the jittery defensive pairing of Jones and Chris Smalling. His indiscipline has also helped knock United out of shape, as the defence have had to go try close Trippier down.

Yes, the United manager got his tactics wrong on the night, and Spurs were brilliant, but Mourinho also expects his players to adapt to the game and problem solve on their own. Pogba shouldn’t need someone to tell him that it’s a bad idea to get so far ahead of play, or that he needs to sprint back if he finds himself out of position. Don’t expect to ever see Mourinho use Pogba as part of a two-man midfield again away to a direct rival. It doesn’t suit the French midfielder, and he’s unlikely to ever be disciplined enough to effectively carry out this role.

When he plays with two other central midfielders, on the left-side of a three-man midfield, he can be brilliant. He excelled in this position against Everton at Goodison Park on New Year’s Day.

Pogba’s performance at Wembley conveys why United fans really must stop comparing him to De Bruye. Or worse, actually arguing that he’s a better player. De Bruyne is the complete midfielder. Pogba isn’t. De Bruyne is almost as effective in the defensive phase of play as when City are on the attack, (he has won 33 tackles in the Premier League this season, Pogba has won 17). Pogba can’t be trusted to carry out his manager’s instructions when United don’t have the ball.

Pogba creates a tactical headache for United in big games, he needs to be freed from defensive responsibility and have the midfield structured around him. De Bruyne is invaluable to Guardiola in every game, a world-class player on the ball, who runs like a non-league player when City are out of possession. He elevates his team to another level.

The two players are asked to carry out very different instructions when they don’t have possession, but there’s no doubt that De Bruyne executes exactly what his coach wants, while Pogba stands arguing with Mourinho.

Pogba is an excellent, exciting player in his own right, and he’ll probably never play as poorly as he did on Wednesday. But, please, United fans, just stop comparing him to De Bruyne. There’s nothing to be gained, and it can only serve to further highlight the gap between them.