The final whistle blows in a match involving Arsenal and Manchester United. Take a glance on Twitter and there’s a high probability that the names Paul Pogba and Mesut Ozil are trending. The reaction is two-fold, one set of opinions focus on a few good moments in the game while the rest lambast the players’ performance labelling them a ‘fraud’ and a ‘disgrace.’ The most troubling aspect is that these are not the views from rival supporters but the thoughts of the Arsenal and United online fan base.
Pogba and Ozil are the most divisive players when it comes to the opinions of not only supporters but the media. We are talking about two wonderfully talented individuals with a total of 20 senior trophies between them for club and country including a World Cup winners medal. And yet, the performances of both players divides opinion more than any other pairing in Premier League history. When it comes to analysing them, there is rarely any grey area with many too willing to offer blind praise or hand out unfair criticism.
The notion that they are mediocre footballers needs to be destroyed because this is simply not true. They wouldn’t have picked up so many trophies and played for the best clubs in world football had they not been up to the standard, therefore it’s ridiculous to disrespect them as professionals. Furthermore, let’s disregard this perception that they are a bad influence on their respected dressing rooms. These have been consistent rumours from some parts of the media but to this day remain unfounded. Instead, one only needs to focus upon what they have delivered on the football pitch with their performances and what they’ve actually said to the press during their time in England to understand the true picture.
Both players are World Cup winners
The ‘World Cup winner’ title is something that nobody can take away from both players. Pogba and Ozil played their role in helping France and Germany make history in 2018 and 2014 respectively, but should that always be an argument used to deter them from criticism? There are other players in these World Cup winning teams who don’t receive the same treatment.
Olivier Giroud didn’t score a single goal in Russia last summer but he arguably played a more influential role for the national team throughout the tournament than Pogba. In their opening match against Australia, France looked disjointed and devoid of ideas and this was emphasised in TF1’s post-tournament documentary “Les Bleus 2018, Au Coeur de l’ÉpopéeRusse” with Pogba citing his confusion about the tactics in a team meeting. Giroud came on after 70 minutes and Didier Deschamps’ side looked more balanced and Pogba managed to score the crucial winner via a deflection.
The striker started the following match against Peru and from then on, his presence freed up the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe who lit up the competition and helped bring the trophy back to France. Rather than being seen as an integral part of the team, Giroud is often ridiculed for failing to score in the competition. The idea that Pogba was sensational during the World Cup is a tad overblown and it’s enhanced not only by his fine strike in the final but also by the clips of him delivering empowering speeches in the changing room. There’s no doubt that Pogba was good but it’s fair to say that he wasn’t even in the top five key players for France with Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe, N’GoloKante, Blaise Matuidi, Raphael Varane and Hugo Lloris enjoying better tournaments in terms of consistency.
Arguably, Pogba’s best game came in the semi-final against Belgium where he put on a fine disciplined performance in handling former teammate Marouane Fellaini and when in possession, he displayed his wonderful passing range, spraying lovely passes into the path of Mbappe as France set up on the counter. This disciplined display must’ve driven then-manager Jose Mourinho mad with the Frenchman showing that he was indeed capable of sacrificing himself for the team in a more defensive role.
“During a season, you can have a big match then a smaller match, then one even smaller, then you can lose your focus, you can lose your concentration, then comes a big match again. In the World Cup, the direction of the emotion, of the responsibility, of the big decisions is always growing us” Mourinho said in an interview with ESPN. “You are in the group phase, you go to the last 16, to the quarterfinals, to the semi-finals, to the finals. This feeds the motivation. This feeds the concentration of a player. So I think it was the perfect environment for him.”
Looking back on the campaign, how accurate does this assessment seem now? Pogba has written his name forever in the history of French football but we still await whether he is prepared for the real battle to compete and deliver over 50-60 matches over a domestic season in England.
The story is a tad different for Ozil given that he produced more consistent displays for Germany in 2014 than Pogba managed last summer. However, one teammate who produced key moments in key matches was Andre Schurrle. The forward scored the crucial opener in the battling round of 16 tie against Algeria before Ozil grabbed the decisive second, he scored a brace in the 7-1 humiliation of host Brazil in the semis and he came off the bench to set-up Mario Gotze to score the goal to win the World Cup for the Die Mannschaft.
Looking at the seasons following the international triumphs, both Giroud and Schurrle struggled to get regular game time for their club –Chelsea– yet there was no clamour from supporters and press alike asking them to get more minutes because they were World Cup winners. Schurrle fell behind Diego Costa, Loic Remy and Didier Drogba in the pecking order whilst Giroud played second fiddle to Alvaro Morata and loanee Gonzalo Higuain this past season. The Frenchman had the last laugh with the opener in the Europa League final and ended as the competition’s top goalscorer with 11 goals. Pogba and Ozil supporters – and potentially the players themselves – need to understand that winning a World Cup simply doesn’t make you exempt from criticism.
The media are too harsh in their assessment of both players
It’s not only the Arsenal and Untied fans who deliver overreactions regarding Pogba and Ozil. The media has generally developed a tendency to beat both players with a stick undeservedly when their respective clubs fail to win. When thinking about criticism towards Pogba especially, one name immediately comes to mind and that’s Graeme Souness. If the former Liverpool man is not lambasting Pogba on television, he’s mentioning his lack of passion or drive in his Sunday Times column when the subject of the piece has nothing to do with United. Souness quickly needs to understand the game has indeed moved on from ‘back in my day.’ He also needs to stop with his persistent rhetoric that Pogba is a bad influence on the United dressing room with little inside knowledge about the club.
The Scot is constantly remonstrating that Pogba should be a better example to teammate Jesse Lingard when the latter is the older player. Souness – along with a substantial part of the media – will only know deep down whether there is a racist undertone to the constant criticism towards Pogba especially regarding his off-the-pitch behaviour. With regards to Ozil, former Arsenal defender Martin Keown is the most outspoken about his contribution to the club but although he does single out the German when he hasn’t been the worst performer, his frustration is understandable due to his past connection with the club unlike Souness with Pogba.
On the other hand, the written press is doing its best to be objective in its assessment of both individuals but similar to the debates amongst fans, is there an element of over-praising them? This season, Independent writer Jonathan Liew produced a piece defending Pogba and likewise the Times’ James Gheerbrant wrote about Ozil. Both articles are fantastic reads but given their tone – especially with the Times article headlined “Did he fail us or did we fail him” – it offers the question would similar pieces exist in defence of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne or Christian Eriksen?
Many might be inclined to feel angered by the suggestion that they should be judging the players in a different manner regardless of what they are witnessing every single week. There is nothing wrong in defending players who are constantly criticised but it must be a fair and balanced appraisal and most importantly, it should not deflect any responsibility that the players must take for their own inconsistent performances.
They are world-class players
The phrase “world-class” is one of the most overused in football right now which makes it hard to universally agree which player deserves the label unless their surname is Messi or Ronaldo. Each person has their own definition but it surely comes down to a player delivering high level performances both domestically and in Europe on a consistent basis. With this in mind, it is very difficult to define Pogba and Ozil as world-class. Many agree that both have a world-class talent but fail to demonstrate it on a regular basis. If these players should be considered as world class then there needs to be a new phrase to describe the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne, David Silva, Fernandinho, Ivan Rakitic and Kante.
Footballers can be judged on their world class status when you can count on one or both hands how many times they’ve performed badly. In terms of mistakes, Gary Neville is remembered for his costly error in Manchester City’s 3-1 victory during the 2002-03 season in the final derby at Maine Road, and also his shocking display against West Brom in 2010 which ultimately turned out to be his last game as a professional. Former England teammate Ashley Cole endured a torrid time for Chelsea against Antonio Valencia in the 2010-11 match at Old Trafford which essentially sealed United’s 19th league title. Both men were world class defenders and beyond the matches mentioned but one would struggle to find more examples of their poor display.
It is the complete opposite for Pogba and Ozil where you can count on both hands how many times they’ve delivered a complete world-class performance. Taking this league season into account, Pogba produced an outstanding display in United’s opening day win over Leicester City which was even more impressive given he hadn’t enjoyed a full pre-season. However, he was one of the poorest players on the pitch in the following match in United’s defeat away to Brighton. There was a moment in United’s 2-2 draw against Southampton which perfectly summed up the Frenchman’s time at the club.
The ball is coming over his head in the opposition half and despite slipping, he brilliantly takes the ball down with a deft touch. He gets away from his marker and dribbles into space with time to look up and play a pass but he takes his eye off the ball and remarkably he’s dispossessed with ease. Ozil delivered one of the most dazzling displays that the Emirates Stadium had seen in Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester, being the architect of a sensational team goal, but he was substituted just after the interval in the next match against Crystal Palace after a subdued performance. Both players are consistently inconsistent which is the most frustrating aspect for supporters as the fans can all see that the talent is there, but only shown throughout a full 90-minute match once or twice a month.
There’s an ‘old-school’ perception that both players should take the game by the scruff of the neck and put in a tackle and simply work harder but it goes beyond that. Both players need to demand the ball more when their team is struggling to get a grip on the match. Eden Hazard is clearly the best player at Chelsea but he accepts this responsibility and he’s always ready to receive the ball and look to hurt the opponent. Pogba and Ozil are not attacking wingers like Hazard but they do seem to lack personality on the pitch in terms of commanding the ball and making an impact especially when the game is slipping away from them.
Tracking back is not part of their game
Both players are often described as “lazy” because they don’t run around as much as they are expected to. Pogba in particular gets criticised for his running style which is simply unfair and just a needless and unnecessary attack on the player. But for example, it is justified to question why the Frenchman failed to track his man for the second goal in United’s 2-0 defeat to already-relegated Cardiff City in the last league game of the season. The argument that both Pogba and Ozil shouldn’t be asked to track back suggests that they’re incapable of implementing a few changes into their game. There have been better players than them who, for various reasons, have adapted, changed or added new attributes to their game.
Pep Guardiola’s influence on Sergio Aguero for City has been immense this season with the Spaniard demanding more work-rate from the striker. Aguero has been City’s main man since joining the club from Atletico Madrid in 2011 but he has been willing to do more for the team which has ultimately been beneficial for the player and the team with City winning an unprecedented domestic treble this season. United’s all-time goal scorer Wayne Rooney adopted a secondary role to Cristiano Ronaldo from 2007-2009 and also to Robin van Persie in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign at the club. Here was a world-class player sacrificing himself for the greater good of the team and still producing impressive displays whilst out of his natural position. Kante completely changed his game under Chelsea boss Mauricio Sarri and although it might not be his favoured position, he has arguably become a more complete midfielder – adding goals to his game due to improved finishing and showing more composure in attacking positions.
Modern football dictates that you must adapt and be willing to evolve as a player or a manager, or you get left behind. Under Unai Emery’s guidance, it had appeared that Ozil started to accept more defensive responsibilities but those memories were quickly dashed with his inept display in the Europa League final. Pogba and Ozil should not be tasked with tracking back all the time but a desire to win the ball back and demonstrate to the fans that you are willing to defend from time to time would go a long way in shutting up detractors.
They need better players around them
On the face of it, this argument continues the perception that the players shouldn’t take responsibility for their mistakes on the pitch. If Pogba sprays a ball out wide and it goes out of play or if Ozil plays a through ball but nobody gets on the end of it, the notion is that the other players are not on their wavelength which frankly is a bit disrespectful to their fellow teammates. United do need better players regardless of Pogba’s presence if they want to challenge for the big trophies once again. The Frenchman appears to be such a huge personality on the pitch that if he does play well, the rest of the team follows suit but it also works the other way.
Pogba is someone who needs better defensive players around him more than anything in order to make up for the amount of times he needlessly loses possession by attempting to shield the ball from an opponent or overplay in a dangerous area. It’s highly likely that with better players alongside him, such as Kante and Matuidi in the national team, his mistakes would not be punished as often as they are in the red shirt of United.
A fine example of this is United’s 2-1 home victory over Everton in the league. Pogba was playing so well that even Souness had to acknowledge the Frenchman’s contribution in the Sky studios but in the second half, he tried an extravagant flicked pass in the opposition half which enabled Everton to capitalise and saw teammate Chris Smalling concede a senseless penalty. It’s fair to say that a better defender doesn’t make the rash challenge and Pogba is reprieved for his overconfidence in the midfield. Better players will certainly cover up his mistakes but they might not change the way of his general play.
Ozil was such an attacking threat when surrounded by some of the best players in world football at Real Madrid, assisting the likes of Ronaldo, Higuain, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria. When he joined the North London club six years ago, he was tasked to find Giroud, Lucas Podolski and Theo Walcott which was clearly a step down. The German possibly enjoyed his peak at Arsenal working with Alexis Sanchez as the two often linked up to terrorise Premier League defences but similar to his former teammate, his powers have seemed to diminish and although he works with strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he has only contributed three assists this season.
Pogba and Ozil are considered the best in squads with average players but how about we change the narrative and ask both individuals to make the rest of their teammates better. Top players normally stand out in a so-called average team and at the moment, these two are failing to achieve this.
Dimitri Payet is an example of a player who stepped into a poorly performing West Ham United team who finished in the bottom half of the table the previous season, and almost single handedly elevated them into Europe with some outstanding performances. Gareth Bale almost inspired a feeble Tottenham team into the top four in a season which enabled him to complete a world record fee to Real Madrid. The genius of Luis Suarez alongside a rejuvenated Steven Gerrard was almost enough to steer Liverpool to their first ever Premier League title during the famous 2013-14 campaign. World class players surely don’t need better players around them to shine and succeed in a poor side.
Even if a player is surrounded by better players, it doesn’t always guarantee success which is something Philippe Coutinho can confirm following his move to Barcelona last year. The Brazilian has struggled to fit into the system at the Camp Nou and the Spanish media continue to scrutinise the performances regardless of Barca’s trophies. This is something that Pogba in particular should keep in mind when considering a change to La Liga.
The statistics don’t lie
The importance of statistics in the modern game has been enhanced and fuelled by the new Football Manager-Fantasy Football era of supporters. Football should never solely be judged on stats because it is a much more nuanced game than that. Eric Cantona scored a total of 64 goals across five years at Old Trafford which would be seen as a poor return for a forward these days. But the numbers cannot begin to take into account his influence on the club, helping them secure a first league title in 26 years and his impact on the youth players of the Class of ’92. Theo Walcott has more goals for Arsenal than Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires but the Englishman will not be regarded as a club great like the aforementioned duo. A player’s contribution to a football club cannot be based purely on stats.
Statistically speaking, Pogba was United’s best player last season and although he was surprisingly voted into the PFA team of the year, he failed to pick up the player of the season accolades at Old Trafford. The caveat to this specific point is that since joining the club, Jamie Vardy hasn’t been voted Leicester’s Player of the Season despite his consistent performances for the Foxes. Positive stats shouldn’t mean supporters overlook players who have performed below the expected standards on a consistent basis.
City boss Guardiola publicly stated that Bernando Silva was the club’s best player last season yet his goals and assist tally don’t measure up to the likes of teammates Raheem Sterling or Aguero. His manager and neutral supporters up and down the country can appreciate the Portuguese’s work rate, effort, skill and composure on the ball without taking a look at the stats table to determine whether he is a fine footballer. Hazard is a player who openly disregards the importance of his own stats for both club and country. Before the Europa League final, the Belgian said, “The best example is with Belgium. I played my best game against Brazil and I didn’t score or make an assist. I don’t think about scoring goals or assists. I just want to do my best. In terms of goals and assists this has been my best season but, for me, a good season is not whether I score 40 goals. I don’t think it is my best season overall to be fair. I don’t look at just statistics; I think I can still improve.”
When a player as gifted and talented as Hazard doesn’t concern himself with stats to feel whether he has delivered an acceptable contribution to his team, then the likes of Pogba and Ozil simply cannot rest on their laurels and use encouraging numbers – past and present – to solely prove their worth at the respected clubs.
Keep or sell?
There are several factors to consider in this situation. If Pogba and Ozil are looking to get supporters onside, they seriously need to start helping themselves. The German almost sealed his own fate in the eyes of many Arsenal supporters when he decided to stroll off the pitch when substituted during the Europa League final against Chelsea. One can understand his frustration at being hauled off in a major final – he was also replaced in the 2014 FA Cup final – but the manner in which he took his time to depart whilst his side was losing could be seen as selfish and the boos he received were telling.
Pogba has not helped endear himself to the United supporters with the comments that he has made in the press this season especially when Mourinho was in charge. Following a rather depressing pre-season, United got off to a perfect start with that victory over Leicester with the Frenchman at the heart of everything good on the night. The grey cloud was starting to lift at Old Trafford when Pogba decided to come out on the rare occasion and speak to the press claiming that he “will get fined” if he speaks about certain matters about the club. This was seen as a response to Mourinho’s comments to ESPN about him but after putting in such a delightful display which earned huge praise from his manager, how does the club benefit from its star man bringing negativity back to the fore?
To make matters worse, United lost to Brighton in the next match and Pogba, as club captain, comes out and states “my attitude wasn’t right” which is incomprehensible for supporters to hear. He has also flirted with a move to Spain whilst on international duty which, along with his previous statements, doesn’t suggest that he is looking out for the best interest of the club.
In terms of matches, United enjoyed the zenith of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer regime when they produced a stunning comeback against PSG in the Champions League. Pogba didn’t participate in the match, not due to injury like the majority of the squad, but because he had needlessly picked up a red card in the last minute of the first-leg. It might be a sign of the future with United performing better as a collective unit without the Frenchman in the team.
Arsenal and United have allowed their two most consistent midfielders, in Aaron Ramsey and Ander Herrera respectively, to leave on a free transfer this summer so the damage has already been done. But would it be such an issue to release two luxury players for a fee in the same transfer window? Pogba and Ozil aren’t helped in the sense that better players have departed both clubs in the past and remarkably, they’ve managed to survive although United have clearly enjoyed a better time of it than the Gunners.
Sir Alex decided to sell Ruud van Nistelrooy – the club’s top scorer in each of his five seasons in Manchester – in 2006 which enabled United to rely on the emerging talents of Ronaldo and Rooney who led the club to three consecutive league titles and the Champions League. Joe Willock, Ozil’s replacement in the Europa League final, gave supporters a small glimpse of his potential and allowing the German to move on might just allow the teenager to develop into a first-team regular next season.
Unfortunately for both World Cup winners, they will not receive the same treatment that Chelsea fans gave to Eden Hazard if they decide to leave this summer. The Belgian has truly confirmed his status as a Blues legend with his two goals in a European final, not to mention his two league titles and his unforgettable displays in a Chelsea shirt. The reality is that neither Pogba nor Ozil will receive such fanfare.
It must be said that Pogba and Ozil are not the biggest problems at their respective football clubs. Both Arsenal and United are in desperate need of a cleanse at the top in order to finally see the benefits on the football pitch once again. Even if the two boards decided to sell their star assets, there would be little faith amongst the fan base that they would bring in the right replacements and there lies the key issue. It is remarkable that both clubs have been left so far behind when they possessed teams that consistently dominated the domestic scene and caused havoc in Europe.
Also Read: Transfer Bubble & Sustainability in Football
However, there is no need for this apocalyptic perception that both clubs cannot afford to lose both players. In fact, it might be beneficial for all parties involved should they decide to bid farewell this summer. It’s possible that a new start might rejuvenate both players similar to how Radamel Falcao reignited his career after leaving England and won the league title with Monaco two years ago. A common theme throughout has been a need for the players to accept responsibility for their performances, but those above them are setting the worst examples in that regard therefore it’s no surprise to see the players on the pitch follow suit.
Time will tell us whether or not Pogba and Ozil remain at the club. But one thing is certain, if they do not step up to become more consistent, the supporters’ voice will only get louder calling for them to leave.