Paul Pogba Before France Game

The Rise and Fall of Paul Pogba: The Former World’s Most Expensive Player Facing a Career Ending Ban

In the world of football, few players have divided fan and pundit opinions quite like Paul Pogba. By most standards, the Frenchman has enjoyed a hugely successful career. A total of 91 caps for France, including a World Cup win, is some serious international pedigree that very few players can match. On top of this, he collected and played a vital role in several Serie A titles and was on the scoresheet as Manchester United won the 2017 Europa League final.

While on paper Pogba enjoyed a career most players could only dream of, there is a sense that the mercurial Frenchman never reached his full potential. In August 2016 Jose Mourinho called him “the best midfielder in the world” and a deserving Ballon d’Or candidate. Pogba, aged 23 at the time, never seemed to live up to this early hype though, something which Mourinho was far from alone in believing.

Skip forward to early 2024 and Pogba, now aged 30, found himself slapped with a four-year ban for doping. The Frenchman announced his intention to appeal the ruling but if upheld, this will surely mark the end of his involvement at the highest levels of football. It will also mean the closest he ever got to the coveted Ballon d’Or was a 14th-place finish in 2016. Is this a case of unrealised potential stunted by a bad attitude or has he been the victim of overhyping and injuries? Let’s find out as we take you through the rise and fall of Paul Pogba.

Above image: canno73 Bigstock Photo 

Early Promise

Boot of Footballer on France Flag Panelled Ball

Pogba was certainly not a late bloomer. Even when watching him play at the age of 15, French football journalist Julien Laurens recalled thinking that “he was the best thing I’ve ever seen…he was so good, a generational talent, an absolute genius”. This was at a time that Lagny-sur-Marne-born player was representing France at under-16 level and ended up being a key player consistently along the youth stages.

When France won the European U17 Championship, Pogba was named in the team of the tournament. Three years later, while the captain of the U20 side, he collected the award for the tournament’s Best Player in the U20 World Cup as he helped guide France to yet more youth glory. Just a week after his 20th birthday, he then made his first appearance for the senior side, another major milestone for the highly-rated midfielder.

Pogba’s call-up for his national side was made possible thanks to his performances for Juventus that season. After moving to Turin in the summer of 2012, the 19-year-old ended up being an important squad member for Juventus, featuring 37 times across the campaign. By the following season, he was consistently starting matches in centre midfield and making quite a name for himself. The Guardian included him in their list of the 10 most promising young players in Europe and later that year he claimed the Best Young Player Award at the 2014 World Cup.

By this point, numerous top clubs from around Europe were keeping their eye on the Frenchman. The only problem was, Juventus had little desire to sell and continued strong performances across the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons meant his value soared. Desperate to bring him back to Old Trafford, where he had spent time as a youth player, the Red Devils paid €105m to bring him in, a then record-breaking transfer fee.

Aged 23 and now the most expensive player in world football, the sky appeared to be the limit for Pogba, but things never quite turned out that way.

The United Decline

Paul Pogba Playing for Manchester United in 2017
Paul Pogba returned to Manchester United in 2016 for a then world record £89m transfer fee. Image: vverve, Bigstock Photo

Whether it was his attitude, teammates, mismanagement or something else, Pogba did not hit the ground running when returning to Man United. In fact, his first two seasons back in Manchester were largely inconsistent. At times the midfielder would show flashes of brilliance but then other times he would go missing. He did not justify his transfer fee but he still looked like he might do in future, as most believed he still had huge potential to improve.

Things changed in the 2018/19 season as the Frenchman enjoyed a more advanced midfield role. He netted 13 league goals, his best-ever return (by a five-goal margin), and managed nine assists on top of this. This was particularly impressive given the context too as United were hardly flying high that year. The Red Devils finished sixth even with Pogba’s great contribution which saw him deservedly named in the PFA Team of the Year.

Pogba was the target of many plaudits across 2019, including several former players. Chris Sutton plus former United men Darren Fletcher and Louis Saha all called him world-class, a sentiment echoed by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who called him the best all-round midfielder in the world. In the summer of that year, Pogba even spoke about taking on a new challenge, with Real Madrid and reportedly keen on acquiring his services.

The 2018/19 season proved to be the anomaly in Pogba’s United career though. The following year injuries restricted him to just 16 league appearances and 22 in all club competitions. He managed to stay fitter the following season but recorded just three league goals and three assists. Fan patience had largely run out by this point as Pogba entered the final year of his United contract. Some of the most optimistic fans still hoped he would turn things around but his final season at Old Trafford was plagued by more injuries and inconsistency.

The Body Breakdown

With United having zero desire to offer Pogba a new contract, the Frenchman returned to Juventus on a free transfer. It was a good job the Italian side did not pay a big fee for their former player because he spent almost all of his time in the treatment room before his four-year doping ban. Across the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons, Pogba played just 214 minutes of football for the Old Lady.

Chart of Paul Pogba's Club Appearances by Season Between 2011-12 and 2023-24

During this time Pogba suffered eight separate issues including knee surgery which kept him out for nearly five months. Given how long the Frenchman has spent sidelined it is hard to think that even without a ban, he could ever regain the kind of ability he displayed during his early 20s. Part of Pogba’s hype was how physically dominant he could be. Exceptional stamina, strong and quick, he could cover so much ground while shrugging others off the ball. Now the wrong side of 30 and with so little match practice, he will have lost a great deal of this physicality.

Was Paul Pogba’s Talent Wasted?

It can be argued that Paul Pogba, a player many believed was destined for greatness, peaked around the age of 23. While unusual, he is hardly the only example of an exciting young player who failed to push on and hit the very top level. Dele Alli and the World Cup-winning Mario Gotze are another two names who did not reach the heights expected of them despite lots of early promise.

On balance, it seems fair to say that Pogba never became as good as he could’ve been, rather than he was simply overhyped. The reasons for this can be long debated but it seems safe to say that his chances of being remembered as being one of the true greats of the game are now well and truly over.