If you follow soccer, or indeed sports, you probably heard that Manchester United signed French wunderkind Paul Pogba this summer for a world record transfer fee of around £90 million. Pogba began his professional career at United before making a name for himself as a powerhouse midfielder at Juventus. Still just 23, he could easily be entering the senior year of his college career at a small liberal arts school after a redshirt year. So while he’s a creative player, could Paul Pogba still perform on a cold, rainy night in Maine?
Let’s start with the positives. Pogba’s physique and hair game are ideally suited to NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Association) play. He’s big, tall, and strong: the prototypical Division III soccer recruit. He fits perfectly into the old American coaching adage “you can’t teach size” and “run”. More importantly, Pogba’s ever-changing exotic hairstyles would make him a strong candidate for the NESCAC All-Hair Team. His current dyed blonde cut certainly makes him unique, though he should probably switch back to the spiked-up mohawk if he wants to be a unanimous selection.
On the surface, Pogba appears to be a perfect fit for Division III soccer, but a closer look reveals a few holes in his game that would be exposed by the ferocious NESCAC play.
Pogba has become known for his long range shooting and thunderous volleyed goals rip through the back of the net. But on most of these strikes, the opposing midfielders are too slow to get out and close him down before he shoots. NESCAC midfielders, on the other hand, are both lightning fast (see Vogel, Daniel) and love physical battles. It’s unlikely that Pogba would get the same time and space to attempt such shots in the top Division III league in the country. He must improve his finishing to see the field in such a competitive league.
Furthermore, Pogba has had the luxury of playing next to some of world soccer’s toughest midfield enforcers, giving him the freedom to showcase his creativity. At Juventus, he shared central midfield with the great Andrea Pirlo, who was so strong defensively that manager Antonio Conte only had to play with three players at the back. Now with United, Pogba often plays next to the two most talented Spanish midfielders of their generation: Juan Mata and Ander Herrera. Mata’s last name literally translates to “kill” in English, which strikes so much fear into the opposition that he rarely tracks back at all. And don’t be fooled by Herrera’s boyish good looks. United reportedly opted to sign him over compatriot Andres Iniesta because the Red Devils valued his tackling ability more than the Barcelona man’s supreme technique.
Indeed, Pogba has played teams that have had such talented defensive midfielders that it has prevented him from becoming an effective two-way player. Yet, defensive ability is essential to being a successful midfielder in college soccer. Pogba would face a steep learning curve in order to adapt to what’s expected of him out of possession in college soccer. If I’m a college soccer coach, I would take a player like Joey Barton, who combines defensive tenacity with a (surprisingly) dynamic range of passing, over Paul Pogba any day.
Italy’s Serie A is known for its tactical complexity and Pogba no doubt learned a great deal from his time with Juve. He’s played for such tactical masterminds as Sir Alex Ferguson, Antonio Conte, and now Jose Mourinho. And yet you get the feeling that the unique style of college soccer might be a bridge too far for the Frenchman, at least at first. Many college soccer teams eschew the dainty build up play and monotonous midfield passing of professional leagues in favor of powerful, direct, soccer. Sure Pogba’s played for some capable managers, but has he ever been asked to drive balls into the channel on a consistent basis? How about everytime he touches the ball? Has he ever played a blind ball in behind the back line? Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fernando Llorente certainly don’t run beyond defenders the way forwards in the NESCAC do. Pogba’s ability to adapt to the tactical intricacies is something of an unknown quantity as of right now. He may need careful guidance to understand the sophisticated systems of play employed in college soccer.
Soccer players often change leagues citing their desire to “seek a new challenge” or to “test themselves against the world’s best.” Paul Pogba would do well to take action on those sentiments and try his hand against Division III soccer’s best sides. After playing in a one-team league in Italy and joining a mid-table Premier League side, his career sorely needs a change. Though it’s a risk--he’d have to work on his shooting, become a true box-to-box midfielder, and learn entirely new tactical systems--Pogba could certainly become a valuable rotation player for a NESCAC team after a season or two.