Will Paul Pogba Become the Best Midfielder in the World?

Fan-favourite Ander Herrera has backed Paul Pogba to become “one of the best in the world” in an interview with Sky Sport’s Soccer Special:

“When you are a midfielder you normally have some special qualities but he has everything. He can shoot, head and defend and he can dribble one-v-one, but he’s still 23.

“He’s now in a very good moment but we can be optimistic with him because he can be even better.

“He can be one of the best in the world and he wants to do it. He wants to be it.”

After his match-winning goal against Middlesborough, and a series of increasingly dominant performances from our world-record signing, it seems like the right time to ask just how good Pogba can become.

Herrera certainly isn’t alone in trumpeting Pogba’s elite potential; None other than Zinedine Zidane went on record back in 2014 to mark his countryman out as a player destined for greatness:

“What Paul is doing at the age of 21 is huge,” Zidane told L’Equipe.

“Maybe we are talking about Pogba a bit too much, but if he can keep up his current development he can become one of the best players ever.

“He has to keep it simple every now and then in order to become more efficient. That way he can develop from a good midfielder into a top player.”

Whilst Pogba has certainly continued to develop in the last two years since Zidane made these comments, that last observation still perhaps rings true. Having said that, at Pogba’s age (23), Zidane was still playing for Bordeaux, finishing 16th in Ligue 1 with 6 goals and 10 assists in his final season before joining Juventus, and he didn’t win his first major personal honours until 1998, aged 26.

When he arrived at United, Rio Ferdinand described in a lengthy Facebook post how “with the platform of Old Trafford [Pogba] has a real opportunity to be the next Man Utd player after Cristiano Ronaldo to be crowned the best player in the world.”

But according to Mourinho, Pogba is already the best midfielder in the world. Speaking to French outlet SFR about Pogba’s chances of winning the Ballon d’Or in the future, the manager said:

“If the perception change, Paul can win it, because Paul is not a goal-scorer, Paul is a midfielder.

“…I think he has conditions to score goals. But Paul is a midfield player. In my opinion, the best. The best midfield player in the world.

“Obviously young. Needs to improve. Wants to improve, which is even better.

“The Premier League is very difficult. You play three or four years in Italy, you arrive in the Premier League and the world is completely different.

“And he is doing well, he is doing more than well. His evolution is clear. So I can imagine next season for Paul will be top.”

So it’s fair to say the rhetoric and expectations surrounding the player couldn’t be any weightier at this point. But is he already the best in his position, and how much better can he get?

These are contentious and intensely subjective questions. Yes, it’s just a game, but with its unrivalled depth of player data, Football Manager is at least one worthwhile reference point in this debate. In the latest 2017 iteration of the definitive football management sim, Pogba is “hands down the best central midfielder on the game,” but still with “plenty of scope for improvement.”

Similarly, in FIFA 17, Pogba is the only CM with potential higher than 90/100 in the game:

fifa 17 best CMs

EA currently rate him on a similar overall level to Toni Kroos, but at 26 years old, Kroos is now nearing his peak, whilst Pogba still has more room to develop.

Again, I’ll reiterate these are just games, and I’m not pinning any arguments on these virtual attributes – it’s just a bit of interesting context when discussing a topic like this.

So, for a bit of real-world data, let’s take a look at how Pogba compares with some of the world’s other top central midfielders, both defensively and offensively, based on performances this season…

Pogba: Defensive Comparison

pogba's defensive stats compared with the world's best CMs

Pogba has featured in more league games this season so far than any of the players I’ve compared him with, but based on per-game averages, he is the strongest in terms of interceptions and aerial duels. He isn’t winning as many tackles as the likes of Kroos and Veratti, but with Herrera in the team, that probably isn’t much of a concern for United fans right now.

Pogba: Offensive Comparison

pogba's offensive stats compared with world's best CMs

Offensively, Kroos is the best-performing CM amongst the world’s best in his position this season, leading the way with assists, chances created, and key passes per game. However, Pogba is comfortably in front of everyone on both shots per game and goals scored, and not far behind Kroos in terms of chances created.

Overall Performance Insights

Across both defensive and offensive performance stats, Pogba leads the way this season in four different areas – more than any of the other players I’ve compared – and seems to boast by far the strongest claim to being the “complete”, rounded midfielder he is generally regarded to be, excelling at both disrupting the opposition and putting the ball in the net.

If he can work on his tendency to overelaborate at times, and replicate the understanding he’s developed with Zlatan with the likes of Mkhi, Martial and Rashford, we should expect to see his assists increase. To be fair, United’s collectively woeful finishing during the initial phase of the season hasn’t helped his cause; from 36 chances created overall, only 3 have been converted so far – a conversion rate of 8.3%. By comparison, Kroos has created just 34 chances, but has 7 assists, suggesting more clinical finishing from his teammates, with a conversion rate of 20.6% to be precise. 

Looking Forward: Pogba Has All the Ingredients to Be the Best in the World

In theory, Pogba shouldn’t be hitting his peak for another 3-5 years, and with United rapidly regaining their winning mentality under Mourinho, there’s no reason to doubt that this is the right environment for him to fulfil his true potential and establish himself as an all-time great.

Despite the recent dominance of Messi and Ronaldo in the Ballon d’Or, plenty of midfielders have won the award in the past, including United legends Bobby Charlton and George Best. In 2020 and beyond, Pogba could well find himself joining such illustrious company, and in years to come, the likes of Keane, Edwards, Scholes and Robson may well find themselves making way for Pogba in fans’ greatest all time Man Utd XI.

But for now, let’s just hope he can keep winning matches for us this season, and look forward to watching him grow and develop over the coming years as United pursue a return to their dominant best.