When Andrea Pirlo departed the greatest stage of all, he did so with tears running down his cheeks and Paul Pogba’s arm over his shoulder.
Juventus’ magnificent charge towards an incredible treble in 2015 had fallen at the final hurdle with Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in Berlin and it was just too much for the wonderful Italian maestro.
But, as Pirlo said his farewells ahead of his last footballing hurrah with New York City, Juve fans were comforted by the knowledge that the man embracing him was maturing into one of the great midfielders himself.
Pogba, then 22, appeared ready to deliver something every bit as memorable as the legacy which Pirlo had built over his 20-year career in Italy. As part of an unplayable midfield triumvirate with Pirlo and the blockbusting presence of Arturo Vidal, the Frenchman was identified as the man around whom Massimiliano Allegri could build his 2015-16 squad as Pirlo, Vidal and Carlos Tevez all said goodbye to the Old Lady.
But that next campaign was to be Pogba’s last in the famous black and white stripes as he chose to head back to Manchester United just four years and four Serie A titles on from his acrimonious split with the club in 2012.
It was considered that, at Old Trafford, Pogba would have a greater stage and a more capable supporting cast as he looked to make his next great leap into super-stardom having gone away and proved his point by winning so much and progressing so impressively with Juve. Yet, for many, Pogba has gone sideways – backwards even – since making the £89.5 million move which made him a record breaker more than two years ago.
And, as he prepares to face the Bianconeri for the first time at the Theatre of Dreams on Tuesday, parallels are understandably being drawn between the Pogba who so brilliantly complemented Pirlo for three years in Turin and the one struggling to stamp his mark on United’s under-performing side under Jose Mourinho.
It is undoubtable that conditions have to be more favourable to Pogba at United if he is to reproduce his best form on a consistent basis. At Juve he completed a perfectly-balanced midfield with Pirlo sitting in and orchestrating the play with ease and grace while Vidal provided the dynamism and tenacity over every single blade of grass. Whether as part of a 3-5-2 or the very occasional 4-3-3, the team was always based around their all-action midfield trio
Pogba’s job in Turin began in a higher starting position than he currently occupies, safe in the knowledge that Vidal had his back if he lost the ball and Pirlo would always find a way to give it back to him when the time was right.
Paul Scholes recently told ESPN that Pogba was a “smaller fish” at Juve than he is at United, and there is truth in that when you consider the football colossuses he found to either side of him in the Juventus dressing room. Hugely forceful personalities such as Leonardo Bonucci and coach Antonio Conte, greats of the game like Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, all complemented by Juve die-hards Claudio Marchisio and Giorgio Chiellini who would soon set you straight if you forgot for one second what being Bianconero was all about.
At Juventus, Pogba was always learning and at the same time was being served by players who suited his approach to the game so well he could hardly have hand-picked them better.
Conversely, at United he has yet to find his true vocation. In his first season under Mourinho he was largely used as one of two deeper midfielders – alongside one of Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini – in a 4-2-3-1 which very rarely afforded him the opportunity to explore the space in which he’d thrived with Juve.
And while during 2018 Mourinho has gradually reacquainted United with a 4-3-3 shape which better suits Pogba’s natural style, there remains a greater weight around the Frenchman’s neck in terms of defensive responsibility. Not for United the unbreakable back line that Pogba barely needed to consider protecting at Juve, nor a midfielder who thirsts on the dirty work as did Vidal.
Instead, the Red Devils have a defence not even their manager trusts, a midfield cast that seems to change by the week, and an attacking vision which leaves a huge amount to chance as opposed to looking for ways to get Pogba probing in those positions in which he found so much joy in black and white.
Roberto Pereyra has told Goal that it could just be a matter of time before Pogba replicates his best Juventus form in a red shirt.
“Paul is a great player, of that there is no discussion. I have played with him and he has amazing quality. He does things which not just any footballer can do,” the Watford attacker said of his former Juve team-mate.
“It is true that at Juventus he did very well and now at Manchester United he has struggled a bit but it is still early. I believe that if he is still here next year or in two or three years, if he stays with Man Utd, he will make history there.”Getty Images
But, in truth, there can be no sitting and waiting for it to happen. There has to be a change in emphasis in so many different respects.
United’s malaise has created an emotional negative to go with Pogba's tactical constraints and the clear personal disconnect with Mourinho, a manager who has taken the vice-captaincy from the midfielder and fallen out with a string of other players at Old Trafford alone. Add in the persistent chopping and changing of the first XI and there is a constant need to perform, bringing its own anxiety. Even a player of Pogba’s stature and innate self-confidence has been affected following Mourinho’s repeated decision to mercilessly drop him at times in the last 12 months.
Is there any wonder that Pogba is not performing to his highest level on a consistent basis given the marked differences between life at Old Trafford right now and the conditions under which he worked in Turin?
If allowed to embrace his natural bolshiness and patrol the areas of the pitch in which he thrives, Pogba can be a world-beater. He has shown it in glimpses this season with United.
But, whereas Pirlo once pulled the strings for Pogba, Mourinho’s United resembles an outfit more liable to tie him up in them. And not until the club’s ills on and off the field are addressed are they likely to get their money’s worth from a man who could still go on to be the player he looked set to become back on that tear-stained night in Berlin.