Every Premier League season brings with it a new set of sweeping statements that everybody loves to blurt out regardless of any facts or critical analysis to back them up.
In 2016-17 the most oft-repeated has been the claim that Paul Pogba “is not worth £90 million” as every man and his dog decides they have a right to tell Manchester United whether or not they were right to spend some of their vast revenues on the French midfielder.
While it is a modern phenomenon for people to watch costly TV services and blindly repeat rhetoric spouted by former professionals who find an issue with the amount of money spent on footballers in the current game, how many have looked into the figures in order to lend support to their arguments?
The Pogba question is a case in point, with accepted wisdom suggesting United overspent on the man who will be one of their key weapons in Wednesday night’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm.
On these pages recently it was pondered why Frank Lampard, a man whose first season at Chelsea after a similarly high-profile move at the same age garnered unconvincing returns, hadn’t been brave enough to empathise with the Frenchman’s plight. And indeed there is evidence to suggest that even Pogba’s Premier League totals of five goals and four assists do not tell the whole story of his impact at Old Trafford.
Opta's Expected Goals (xG) model measures how likely a particular shot is to be scored based on distance to the goal, angle to the goal, assist type, whether or not it was headed and a variety of other factors. This assigns an xG value between 0 and 1 that reflects how likely the shot is to be scored. So, for example, 0.3 xG means a shot will typically be scored 30 per cent of the time.
And while Pogba has trailed only Joe Allen and Leroy Fer in goals scored by central midfielders in the league in 2016-17, the 24-year-old actually outdoes everyone in his position on expected goals. That suggests he has regularly got into good goal-scoring positions and has been deserving of better returns, with his tally of six efforts against the woodwork leading the entire league.
It is in expected assists that his value to United’s cause gives the most accurate reflection though, with Pogba’s natural game being to tee up others from deep positions. Opta’s Expected Assists model (xA) works similarly to the aforementioned xG formula, the xA model measuring how likely it is that a completed pass becomes an assist based on factors such as pass type, distance to goal before and after the pass, and pass length.
And Pogba’s returns in this regard are staggering. While Cesc Fabregas has gain widespread plaudits for his 12 assists this term, his xA tally of 5.88 tells us that the Chelsea midfielder has benefited massively from the conversion rates of those on the end of his passes.
Pogba, meanwhile, has a 6.75 xA score. That means that Pogba’s true value to United in terms of assists is nearer seven than the five which were converted. Were his team-mates able to finish with a similar success rate to Fabregas’ Blues colleagues, perhaps people would be judging his world-record transfer through different eyes.
Many onlookers have given little credence to Jose Mourinho’s claims that United have dominated games this season but just haven’t taken their chances, yet in terms of those supplied by Pogba the side have certainly under-performed in front of goal. In a modern world in which hard statistics are used in mitigation but there is little room for subjectivity, the xG and xA scores supplied by Opta make for fascinating reading.
Perhaps it sounds a little more fun and quirky to have Graeme Souness to suggest United “had their pants pulled down” when negotiating a transfer fee with Juventus for Pogba. Maybe hyper-analysing Pogba’s positioning in a curtailed attack wins plaudits for the likes of Lampard and Jamie Carragher.
The deeper facts suggest that it is not necessarily Pogba underperforming but rather the players around him, but of course that doesn’t make for a good story. Nobody wants to hear that an £89.5m player needs time to grow and also quality players on a similar wavelength to complement him, only that he is either a success or a failure.
“By you media, you have the right to say [the Europa League final] decides if this season has been a success or failure] – and it makes sense to say it – but I don’t feel like that,” said Mourinho recently. “I don’t want the players to feel like that.”
In Pogba’s regard in particular people seem eager to jump on the success versus failure narrative. But the truth, as often the case, is more complicated than that.