Paul Pogba and Mesut Özil: Victims of a Weak Link Sport

Paul Pogba and Mesut Özil are often held accountable for the struggles of their teams, and it showcases the difficulties we have evaluating individuals in team sports.

I’ve been thinking about the situation of Paul Pogba quite a bit recently. He’s been bearing the brunt of criticism in recent weeks for Manchester United’s mediocre results this season and Jose Mourinho had dropped him from the United side just before his sacking, cumulating in him not even seeing the pitch at all in their limp performance at Anfield. Pogba isn’t a player I have any particular affiliation for, though that’s mostly down to the club he plays for rather than anything to do with the player himself. His situation, however, has reminded me a lot of a player who is close to my heart; Mesut Özil.
While the Pogba – Özil comparison might seem a bit random at first, there are a number of similarities between the Frenchman and German. Both had success at giant European clubs from a young age, where they become widely regarded as world class players. In their early 20s both joined Premier League clubs that hadn’t been competing for league titles for a few years. Both won the World Cup while in their mid 20s, only to encounter significant criticism the following season for their club performances. Both are players principally renown for their ability to do things which help a team’s attack, but neither are prolific goal scorers themselves. And both Pogba and Özil have also become among the most polarising players in world football, both with regards to their quality as a player, and in particular their Premier League careers.

If anything, the broad consensus on both players is that, since their transfers to the Premier League, they’ve been a bit underwhelming. While they have shown their quality in patches, they’ve lacked consistency and have failed to make the kind of impact that was prophesied upon their arrival in the league. Even those who have more favourable outlooks on both players often tend to construct the discourse as the club needing to do more to get the best out of them, rather than the players simply playing well. Whether it be a change of role or different teammates, the acceptance is that the player is performing worse than they could, worse even than when they’ve played for different teams.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the argument either player has been significantly worse in the Premier League compared to the rest of their career, doesn’t really hold up when you look at the numbers. Defining Pogba as a player isn’t quite as simple as with some others, and perhaps that’s a big part of the problem surrounding him. Some of his qualities are that of a deep lying playmaker, others that of an attacking box-to-box midfielder. For United, and for France in the last two tournaments, he’s been tasked with being the main passer in the midfield, while also contributing to attacks, through his ball progression skills – both in passing and dribbling – through his creativity, and with goal threat from midfield.

In the Premier League last season Pogba was one of the best players at moving the ball forward into dangerous areas. Only David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Mesut Özil and Eden Hazard made more progressive passes and runs on the ball – defined as plays that move the ball more than 10 yards further towards goal, or into the box. Europe wide, this figure was higher than the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Andres Iniesta. When it came to goals and assists, Pogba registered 6 goals and 10 assists in just 2151 minutes, making it his most productive ever league season in terms of goal contributions per 90 minutes. He did this while completing more passes per 90, at a better accuracy, then he ever did in a season for Juventus or in the World Cup for France.

In fact, one could use this to even argue that Pogba’s performances for Manchester United have been better than his Juventus ones. At Juventus he was predominantly a third midfielder, given plenty of freedom and allowed to do the fun aspects of midfield play in the knowledge other players would mostly take care of building play and defending. At United he’s somewhat seamlessly settled into being the heartbeat of the midfield, without it hurting his creativity or goal and assist numbers.

Mesut Özil is a more easily defined player. His main skill that he performs better than 99% of the football world is creating chances for his teammates. In La liga he created 2.83 chances from open play per 90 minutes. In the Premier League that figure has dropped a bit to 2.59. When you consider the drop off in team quality from Real Madrid to Arsenal, however, the difference is minor. Playing for the super clubs often massively inflates a player’s stats, and Özil also benefited from rarely playing 90 minutes at the Bernabéu. Like Pogba he also immediately took on a role of greater responsibility at Arsenal, playing significantly more passes and becoming a key ball progresser for the Gunners (as seen in the aforementioned graph).

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But arguing such intricacies in their player stats is somewhat useless in general discussions, because that’s not the reason Pogba and Özil are perceived by many to have failed in the Premier League. Both Pogba and Özil were signed with the hope of orchestrating a significant change in fortunes for their club. United had finished 7th, 4th and 5th in the three seasons post-Ferguson, and were hoping to compete for the title again. Arsenal hadn’t achieved 80 points in the Premier League for five years, and had essentially gone through a period of austerity in the transfer market. The hope was that the Özil signing would be the beginning of them becoming a force near the top of the table again. Not only did neither club meet their goals, they’re arguably in an even worse state now than they were then. Arsenal finished sixth last season, and United have had their worst ever start to a Premier League season this year.

As the franchise players in their respective failed projects, it’s understandable that Pogba and Özil face a lot of scrutiny. But when it comes objectively evaluating their performance levels in the Premier League, just how much should they be held accountable for their team’s shortcomings? Some may be familiar with the strong link vs weak link theory in sport. The idea that how good a team is in some sports is defined by the strength of their best player, while in other sports a team is defined by the competence, or lack there of, of their worst player.

Among high profile sports, basketball is probably the most clear strong link sport. A team can practically run its entire offence through one player, and in a 5v5 game, it’s almost impossible for an opposition to prevent that player from receiving the ball or getting shots off without leaving themselves incredibly open elsewhere. One only has to look at the streak of consecutive NBA Finals LeBron James has made, and then compare that to the results the Heat and the Cavillers have had in the years following his departures to realise those teams were, mostly, LeBron and others, rather than a brilliant collective.

Of course, even if football was like basketball, Pogba or Özil wouldn’t be the LeBron. But the general consensus is that football is more of a weak link sport. That’s not to say great players can’t have a significant impact and even be the difference between success and failure. But one good player can’t consistently put a team on his back and carry them the way a lot of critics seem to suggest they should. Just look at the struggles Argentina have had in the last three years, even with arguably the greatest ever player in their ranks.

All this makes evaluating individual players in a team sport all the more difficult. With the exception of prolific goal scorers, there aren’t many ways to objectively measure the performance level of an individual footballer the way there are in lots of other sports. This makes it natural to gravitate towards things like trophies and league position as a measure of a player’s ability – unarguable, objective facts. But these team measurements are just that, team evaluations. Trying to use them to define one individual within that team just isn’t fair.

In their particular roles, Pogba and Özil are probably more vulnerable than most to having their positive efforts brushed aside in struggling teams. They’re attacking players, but they don’t score prolifically themselves. They do a lot of things that arguably help a team, but they don’t always directly alter the scoreline themselves the way a striker can. So when their team does struggle, the perceived value of their skill set diminishes. People no longer consider the things they do to be effective in helping their team, and are more inclined to highlights the negative effects of their flaws.

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One of the few differences between Pogba’s game for United last season and his World Cup was the slightly more defensive role he undertook for Les Blues. In the World Cup he did his passing from deeper and his forays forward were far less regular. He was more of a traditional deep lying playmaker rather than the roaming one he usually is at club level. France, of course, won the World Cup and Pogba received significant praise from pundits for his performances, many of whom questioned why he couldn’t put in similarly disciplined performances for United.

But what is likely to be the biggest difference between France’s success and Manchester United’s struggles of the last three seasons? A slightly more reserved and disciplined Pogba? Or a world class centre back partnership in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, and, in the case of Kyliann Mbappé, an elite forward capable of deciding close matches on his own? International tournaments are usually defined by tight low scoring affairs, and with France’s elite attacking talent, they had far less need for Pogba’s attacking skills – even if they did prove useful in the final – than United do in a league season.

At Juventus, it’s well established that Pogba was a part of one of the most complete midfields of recent history. Andrea Pirlo was one of the best distributors of his generation and Arturo Vidal was an all action midfielder at his most athletic peak. The narrative is often that these players helped to get the best out of Pogba but that argument is perhaps more complicated than necessary. Those players, regardless of the level of Pogba, helped make Juventus better. If Pogba had played at the exact same level, but The Old Lady had inferior midfielders alongside him, they would’ve been a notably worse side than they were. While it’s often argued Pogba doesn’t have the midfield around him to flourish at United, could it simply be that he is flourishing, but because of United’s lack of other quality, they’re still not very good?

When Mesut Özil won La Liga in 2012 and was widely considered the best attacking midfielder in the world, he had the benefit of having one of the greatest footballers of all time in his prime to feed chances to. It’s a privilege he hasn’t had since 2013, and his standing in the world game has only gone down since, even while he’s continued to roam into space with that same liquid grace and create chances at a statistically outstanding rate.

There’s also the case of Xherdan Shaqiri. Shaqiri was so far and away the standout player at Stoke last season that many actually blamed him most of all for Stoke’s relegation. Despite putting up very impressive goal and assist numbers for a player on a weak team, his attitude and team play were questioned by fans, pundits and even his teammates after he left. In the eyes of many, if he was truly a top player, his team wouldn’t have struggled as much as they did. Stoke built around him, yet still weren’t very good, therefore he couldn’t have been that good, went the logic. That he was simply a good player in a bad team that would’ve been even worst without him was too simple an assessment. Of course, roll on a few months and Shaqiri has turned into an important player for the Premier League leaders, while Stoke, despite not selling many other players from their Premier League team, are languishing in mid-table in the Championship.

It’s worth noting that all three of these players have been criticised in a similar way. Their attitude has been questioned and people lamented their poor work rate and ability to sacrifice for their team. These are the kind of intangibles that are almost impossible to disprove but at the same time seemingly don’t exist when their teams are having success.

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Evaluating individuals in a sport of 11 players is not an easy task. If a team is struggling more than expected, it’s perfectly fair to question if poor performance by an individual is a contributory factor. But rather than that what we often see is the standout player, in what is essentially a weak link sport, blamed entirely for the poor performance of a collective group of players, almost regardless at times of their own individual level.

If Paul Pogba and Mesut Özil have won league titles and World Cups with the same play style and character traits they still have, and did it with similar individual statistics to what they produce now, then maybe, in a sport of 11 players, they’re not the ones most responsible for Manchester United and Arsenal failing to achieve their aspirations in the last few years. Whatever flaws they have in their game – and they both have significant ones – we shouldn’t scapegoat them as if they are.

Author: Oscar Wood/@Reunewal
Photo: Adidas Football