Illustration by Luigi Coari
Platini, Brady, Baggio, Del Piero, Tevez; all footballers blessed with authenticity and unique personality. Legendary, iconic names, bound together by one common denominator – they were all bestowed with the honour of brandishing the number 10 draped on the famous black and white Juventus shirt.
Numbers are a curious thing in sport. Originally utilised in football’s law books to distinguish footballer’s playing positions, they have taken on added mystique and reverence as the decades have passed. In basketball, Michael Jordan created a brand through his number 23. Johan Cruyff, football’s ultimate rebellious figurehead, refused to adhere to the numerical status quo, wearing 14. At both Liverpool and Manchester United the number 7 holds high esteem.
It is the number 10 that sets hearts a flutter at the Bianconeri though. The departure of Carlos Tevez left a void at the Turin club, prompting owner Andrea Agnelli to insist that only a certain type of character could withstand the weight of expectation that the number ten brings. “The number 10 has always been the stuff dreams are made of. It’s the shirt all the kids want. But it’s a shirt that has to find a player with particular characteristics, a fenomeno.”
As ‘Carlitos’ scratched a long itch to return home and finish his career at Boca Juniors, Agnelli sought the perfect fit to replace him, someone who could carry the shirt with distinction. Chelsea’s Oscar and World Cup final goalscorer Mario Götze were both touted as potential heirs, as was Wolfsburg’s Julian Draxler. When asked if he would assume control, club talisman Claudio Marchisio didn’t feel it was right for him to take it. “It’s right that a star wears the number 10, a player that gets the fans excited.”
Juve were looking for a player with character, individuality and star quality; a player of immense skill and self-belief. As well as the characteristics already touched upon, the profile of the player in question also had to be someone who was capable of inspiring those around him. In the end it, the solution was closer to home than anticipated. The club’s hierarchy realised they needed to look no further than a guy already at the club: Paul Pogba.
Not only did Pogba want the number 10 shirt, he demanded it. In the absence of Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, he recognised the need for him to step up to the mark. The sufficient blend of talent, aura and intestinal fortitude all epitomise the Frenchman, because it takes balls to demand such responsibility at the age of 22. It is somehow ironic that Pogba’s very noticeable ebullience which has got him to this point is the very same attitude which drove Sir Alex Ferguson to allow him leave on a free transfer just four years ago.
Paul Pogba was born in Lagny-sur-Marne in the eastern suburbs of Paris. He played youth games at Le Havre, but much of his fledgling development as a footballer took place in England with Manchester United. If his recruitment originally was controversial and protracted – he was allegedly one of the teenagers illegally tapped up by English clubs in 2009 alongside Chelsea’s Gaël Kakuta – Pogba’s United exit was to turn out one of Ferguson’s great mistakes.
While United always claimed Pogba sought an unwarranted wage increase and that his attitude was questionable, the player always maintained that he was just searching for minutes on the field. The tipping point was a league cup game against Blackburn in December 2011. “Paul Scholes had retired, Darren Fletcher was injured. There was no one left to play in midfield. And I was training and I was beginning to get better bit-by-bit and the coach never stopped telling me, ‘You’re this far’. And there was Rafael in midfield. I was disgusted and I didn’t get on either.”
So Pogba took the brave step and signed for Juventus. Thierry Henry was adamant that Pogba was ready to take his place in the United first eleven back in 2012. “I don’t know what happened there, he was ready for me at that time. I saw him play in a World Cup with the France youth team and you could see already that he had something different from the other players. It didn’t work for him at United for various reasons but he showed character, he went to Juve and showed he could play.”
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Pogba follows in a long line of great Juventus number 10s
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He quickly vindicated his fellow countryman’s evaluation. It was the move to Antonio Conte’s Serie A champions that invigorated Pogba, giving him the platform to spread his wings and fly. Surrounded by quality players, leaders and winners, Pogba developed into a supreme midfielder at a rapid rate. Learning from Pirlo and Vidal, two of the finest midfielders in the game, Pogba never looked out-of-place. Successive scudetti followed and his influence increased.
There was always a sense that Conte didn’t want to expose Pogba to too much too soon. Conte limited the 20-year-old’s minutes, described as a “carrot on the stick” approach by the manager. When Conte resigned in the summer of 2014, his replacement Max Allegri let off the safety valves, like a mother removes the armbands once her child can swim.
Title number three and a trip to the Champions League final in Berlin owed much to Pogba. Now, with Pirlo plus Vidal seeking new challenges and the number 10 on his back, Pogba’s ascension appears compete.
In many ways Pogba is the 21st century prototype for a footballer. Most observers will label him with the usual stereotypical traits of strength, power and speed. While Pogba has all of those in spades, he also has just about every other aspect needed to master elite level football. Not only can he score goals from almost anywhere inside the opposition’s half, he can supply passes short, long and anywhere in between. He is tough tackling, positionally intelligent and an able ball carrier.
Statistics reflect why Pogba is so coveted by Europe’s superpowers. In over 150 matches for the Bianconeri, Pogba has scored almost 40 goals, improving his tally with every season. He has also provided 15 assists, completed an average of 85 percent of passes and delivered on average 1.5 key passes a game. He makes around 2.2 tackles per game and has only received 20 bookings in that period. He wins roughly two aerial duels per match and covered over 69,000 meters of distance in the first half of the Champions League in 2013 alone.
The multifaceted nature of Pogba’s skill set means he is adept in most positions across the midfield. He is comfortable as a box-to-box central figure, he has played in front of the defence, and was used as the left side of a diamond in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. Pogba was placed in a more advanced role during pre-season and flourished, so Allegri could be tempted to use him there in competitive action.
Along with Austria’s David Alaba, Pogba is an example of today’s three-dimensional footballer. The Frenchman has the right mixture of coached technique and natural brilliance. Many greats of the past honed their craft on the streets, kicking balls off walls, curbs and reacting to it as it returned back. The current model of academy production at European clubs tends to produce systematic footballers brought up with a certain way of playing, the German model being the shining example today. Pogba marries the values learned in the coaching system with the improvisation only discovered in alien environments.
Aligned with the combination of talent, superior athleticism and skill is that intangible quality great players have – the ability of making the improbable look exceedingly easy. At times, Pogba appears to be a man stepping on the pitch with boys. He glides across the ground like a gazelle, humiliates fellow professionals with his bewildering trickery and has a penchant for the spectacular. At the forefront of a brilliant young group of French players, Pogba will be vital to his national team’s hopes of winning the European Championships on home soil next summer.
What the future holds is still to be decided. At some point it is likely that Pogba will leave Juve, but that will unfold in time. If there is one moment that encapsulates Pogba as a footballer in his career so far, it would have to be his world-class goal against Napoli at the Juventus Arena. With the ball arriving at his feet, Pogba flicked it up in the air, swivelled and volleyed into the top corner of Pepe Reina’s net. As teammates engulfed his tall frame and supporters roared wildly, Pogba stood there nodding his spiked haired head in approval. It was all in a day’s work for the first genuine prototype footballer of the 21st century.
By Conor Kelly. Follow @ConorPacKelly