It was a disappointing night on Tuesday for Manchester United as they went down 3-0 to Barcelona to end their quest for a fourth Champions League title.
An overall aggregate score of 4-0 perhaps justified United’s impact on Barcelona over the two legs. Notably, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men created very little in contrast whose star players proved decisive statistics to help them win the tie.
Among the many disappointments from the tie, the influence, or indeed lack of it, from midfielder Paul Pogba was palpable.
The Frenchman managed just two shots on goal over the two legs, both of which came at the Camp Nou. One was an audacious attempted lob from near the halfway line that went high and wide, and the other was a tame effort straight into Marc-Ande ter Stegen’s arms.
It’s not the first time the United man has failed to impact a big European contest for United. In their last 16 tie against PSG, he capped off another underwhelming display at Old Trafford with a red card that saw him suspended for the return-leg in Paris.
United overcame a two-goal deficit without the Frenchman, raising further questions as to his true impact in these big games.
Pogba is of course known for being a dynamic dribbler and, due to his size, can cover large amounts of space easily while maintaining strength and balance as he runs at opponents.
He is aggressive in his choice of passes and often has the technique to follow through on his confidence. Yet, he has often faced a backlash from fans and media for his regular sub-par displays.
A lot of this was put down to the management of the player under former boss Jose Mourinho. The Frenchman was often deployed as a deep lying left central midfielder in a 5-3-2 / 3-5-2 formation.
As a result, it was considered he was tactically shackled and unable to impact the game.
When Solskjaer arrived, he reintroduced Pogba back into an attacking midfield role, and it looked to be a wise move. He once again seemed to be proving himself as the all-action midfielder fans love and remember, and looked to be bossing games; indeed, he can now boast a handsome 15 goals and nine assists across this season’s Premier League and Champions League.
This season, according to statistics, Pogba has played 39 matches across the Premier League and Champions League. Of those matches, 15 have been against ‘elite’ sides.
The player’s performances has been markedly reduced in the games against those elite sides in comparison to the ‘lesser’ sides he has faced.
Despite scoring 15 goals across both competitions this season, just two have been against better opposition – that was a brace against perhaps the weakest of all the elite opposition, Swiss side Young Boys back in September.
Additionally, just two of his nine assists across both competitions have been against two of these teams. Again, one came against Young Boys in that same game in September, with the other away at Tottenham Hotspur in January.
This would represent a largely underwhelming return for the Frenchman, specifically when three of those four combined goals and assists came against perhaps the weakest Champions League side United faced.
He also averages around just one shot on target per 90 minutes against these sides, which is a sharp drop on his average of 1.58 against the ‘rest’.
This basically illustrates he not only score fewer goals, but is also involved in fewer quality chances.
All in all, on paper, Pogba is shaping up to be a textbook example of a flat-track bully.
There is no denying he has phenomenal natural talent and would prove hugely influential over the course of a season in terms of his goals and assists.
However, United’s aspirations are to close the gap on the likes of Barcelona and again have the Reds at the pinnacle of European football.
“We have said all along that this isn’t going to change tonight. The next few years will be massive for us to get to the level of Barcelona,” Solskjaer said after the game.
The performances of their star players such as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Phillipe Countinho all made the difference over the two legs.
If Solskjaer’s United are to truly close that gap, they will need more than superior displays against those below.
They will need their linchpins and star players to become match winners in the biggest of games – and on this season’s performances, it doesn’t look like Pogba is that player.