Graeme Souness’ Criticism of Pogba: A Masked Jealousy

With Covid-19 suspending all forms of football globally, with the exception of Belarus, there has been an endless amount of interviews conducted by media stations and former/current players and coaches. While the main topics have been the future of football, financial stability and nostalgia, one topic has that has drawn a lot of the footballing attention is Paul Pogba “hitting back” at Graeme Souness.

Since Pogba’s return to English football in 2016, Graeme Souness has developed a reputation for being the Frenchman’s biggest critic and it can be very hard to argue against it. Whether it is an article in the Sunday Times or during a post-match analysis on Sky Sports, criticism of the Man United midfielder has never been far away from Souness’ thoughts. He doesn’t even have to be playing to attract criticism.

But why has Graeme developed this reputation? Is it a case of the footballing world exaggerating a handful of relevant comments or does the picture portrayed accurately tell the story?

  • ”We get kidded by his athleticism. When you see him move he is an absolute Rolls Royce. Does he have a football brain? He has still to develop his football brain.” Sky Sports, Manchester United vs Leicester, September 2016.
  • “He does eye-catching stuff, which with all due respect to people who don’t understand the game so well, (they) go ‘wow, wasn’t that great play?’… What I see as a midfield player, an old midfield player, is someone that’s not really got a great understanding of the game” TV3, Europa League Final, May 2017
  • “Pogba plays like a schoolboy running after the ball in the playground” – Sunday Times, February 11th
  • “If I’m sitting in Manchester United’s dressing room today, I’m glad Romelu Lukaku has gone and don’t want Paul Pogba in there with me either if he’s not up for the fight ahead and is also keen to get away.” Sunday Times, August 2019.
  • “‘Paul Pogba? He’d be an absolute doddle to play against.” The Sunday Times, March 29th 2020

This is only a handful of comments made by Souness. It took me a grand total of 23 minutes of research to find these – If you type Graeme Souness into Google, the fourth suggestion after flag, age and wife was Pogba.

To summarise his opinions, Pogba is a brainless athlete who would be easy to play against. If any pundit said that statement in just one interview, there would be a strong chance the player criticised would bite back but to have a barrage of comments like that fired over 4 seasons? It’s safe to say most players would not keep quiet. The last quote from the article in The Sunday Times sums it all up as that is not just a quote from the article, it is the heading.

But Pogba has remained quiet; not one word. The world cup winner has never responded to any criticism received by the former Liverpool midfielder but, according to the worlds media, has hit back at Souness in an interview with the Official Manchester United Podcast.

`’I didn’t even know who he was. I heard he was a great player and stuff like that.

`’I know the face but the name [no]. Like I said I’m not someone that watches a lot of [punditry], I watch a lot of football but I don’t stay after the game to listen to what they say about ‘Why they did this’ or ‘why they did that’. I like to focus on football.”

This was only prompted when the interview was geared towards criticism and how he handles it. He was very vague in his responses, never mentioning a specific pundit or article. In fact, the only reason Graeme Souness was brought in to the picture was due to the interviewer making a joke about sending Souness a picture of Pogba with the world cup. Pogba actually references Souness’ ability in a positive manner more than anything else.

While claiming to not know who a famous former footballer is can be easily seen as disrespectful, to say Pogba does not know who Souness is can’t be presumed to be that – Pogba moved to England at 16 and left at 18 so his knowledge of British football could be very little, the same way Souness’ knowledge of the famous Saint Etienne 4-in-a-row side from 1966-1970 would be little at best. Pogba only moved back to England in 2016 and at this stage, Souness was in the highly saturated market of being a pundit on Sky Sports. As Pogba has stated, he does not watch punditry so there is a chance he genuinely does not know who he is.

However, this was enough for Sky Sports to discuss Pogba’s “response” in an interview with Souness and Jamie Carragher only 24 hours after the release of the podcast. In response to the Jamie Carragher commenting on how disrespectful Pogba’s comments were, Souness stated “Put your medals on the table. I’ve got a big table.”  Pogba has won 11 major honours including a World Cup as well as an U20 World Cup. At 27 years old, Souness had only won 2 league titles, a European Cup and a 2nd Division Title. (It’s worth noting while initially Carraghers comments can be perceived as stemming from a Liverpool bias rather than telling a current player to respect a former great of the game, he had the same attitude towards Liverpool keeper Lorius Karius when he told him to “Shut up and do your job” when the German directly responded to criticism from Gary Neville.)

I look at Souness’ criticism of Pogba and think “Why Pogba?” My initial thought in 2016 was it was just another Liverpool vs United argument but as the years went on the criticism became more frequent and damning, my mind began to float towards the idea that he despises the type of player he thinks Pogba is – The modern footballer more who lacks passion for his club or is more focused on haircuts, cars and fashion rather than playing the game. But many other footballers fit that category such as Jesse Lingard or Mario Balotelli. So why Pogba?

I was reading Souness’ article on why he would find it a doddle to play against Pogba when a comment Souness said struck me – “I would try to work harder than the other player and see where it gets me.” Souness never had the technical ability, the flair or the athleticism of Pogba in his playing day. He was in no doubt a fantastic player with a good technical ability; you don’t star in midfield for a team winning four league titles and three European cups in 6 years if you were not.  But Pogba is a better passer, better dribbler, more threatening in the air, a better striker of the ball, faster, stronger, more powerful and possibly fitter than Souness ever was. The qualities Souness can safely say he was better than Pogba than were the qualities that mattered the most to him: Passion, professionalism, a high work rate, aggression, never pulling out of tackle, be willing to sacrifice yourself for the team. Souness’ defensive intelligence is certainly stronger than Pogba’s but you can argue that is cancelled out by the Frenchman’s intelligence going forward surpassing that of Souness.

Souness had to work his socks off to get where he did, to play in that team, to achieve what he did. He would go through any man for Liverpool and several players were on the receiving end of Souness, such as Dinamo Bucharest captain Lică Movilă. As stated in the article, Souness feared no man or challenge and was a warrior for each club he played for.

The same cannot be said for Pogba. While he has shown some jaw dropping moments such as the double at The Etihad or the wonder strike against Swansea, they have been few and far between. However, there have been many moments that have left the Old Trafford faithful questioning his fight and passion for the club. His performance in the 4-0 drubbing at Everton last season had United fans furious and this season, they’re rightly questioning how serious can his injury be if Andre Gomes can suffer a broken leg and still return to playing before he can.

Yet despite this, he is still viewed as a top-class midfielder and is, arguably, better than any of Liverpool’s midfield three, definitely when on his day. He has won just as many leagues titles in Italy as Souness did in England and while Souness has 3 European Cups to his name, Pogba is a World Cup Winner and has the potential to add to that in 2022. Souness only had 4 major honours to his name by the time he was Pogba’s age. At 27, Pogba has 11 major honours to his name and has a great chance of beating Souness’ 15 he achieved as a player – 3 of which included a 2nd division title with Middlesbrough and a league and league cup in Scotland.

But it’s that phrase so frequently linked to Pogba that I suspect drives Souness up the wall; On his day. Souness never had to be on his day because to him, that is part of the job description so he naturally was 90% of the time.

To see a player like Pogba achieve all he has and have the potential to achieve more than you ever did as a player must really get under Souness’ skin and this is where I think the criticism stems from.

Souness wasn’t given the chance he thought he deserved at Spurs so he had to begin his graft in the 2nd tier of English football with Middlesbrough to get where he did. Pogba, on the other hand, had his agent arrange a move to Juventus after he felt he wasn’t getting enough game time. This was at a time when United’s midfield contained Giggs, Scholes and Carrick.

Having spent 6 years at Middlesbrough working tirelessly to become the player he was, Souness went on to become part of a great Liverpool team but the he would end up captaining. A reason for this team being so dominant was due to Souness’ warrior like mentality. In 6 years at the club, he won 4 league titles. Pogba moved to Juventus and having very little first team experience but he was surrounded title winning professionals such as Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon. In 4 years at Juventus, he won the same number of league titles but also added two Coppa Italias. The FA Cup eluded Souness as a player.

Souness can boast his European Cup medals and while Pogba does have a Europa League medal, I cannot see him winning a Champions League while at Manchester United in the next few seasons so Souness can hold that over his head but the World Cup medal exceeds that. Souness played in 3 world cups but only saw his country win 2 games out of 9, scoring 1 goal in a draw against USSR. This is in stark comparison to Pogba who has played at two World Cups; He was named Young Player of the Tournament in 2014 and won the famous trophy in 2018, scoring in the final.

To see a player achieve so much while doing very little in your eyes must only fill you up with a jealous rage. Knowing this undeserving, unintelligent player who has already won the biggest prize of all, can achieve more than you ever did despite the fact you worked tireless to get achieve everything you did must get under your skin, especially when that player represents your clubs arch rivals.

Souness has told Pogba to put his medals on the table. As it currently stands, Souness is winning 14 – 11 in regard to major trophies but Pogba is only 27. Can Pogba win 4 more trophies by the time he retires? It is a certain possibility and if that happens, let’s hope Pogba’s table is just a bit bigger than Souness’.

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