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16 Feb 2018

Pogba vs De Bruyne: Football's new debate

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Anything you can do...

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Are there any similarities?

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A tale of two philosophies

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Wrong place, wrong time

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What is football?

(Photo credit: Brad Tutterow)

"De Bruyne didn't play that well last year but I would give the shirt off my back for him." 

Jupp Heynckes was talking to kicker magazine and was pulling no punches. "You must have a player like him in his position. He is far and away the best player in Europe at the moment."

Not content to end the discussion there, he continued talking about other central midfielders within the European game. "What constitutes a great signing?" he mused. "Paul Pogba cost Manchester United €105 million. Is he playing like [a great signing]?"

Anything you can do...

What does Paul Pogba have to do with Kevin De Bruyne? The question merits being asked.

Of course, they are two high profile footballers playing in the midfield area for two of the biggest football teams in the world which, by coincidence, are based in the same geographical area (whatever Manchester City fans will tell you).

But is that enough? After all, David Silva plays for Manchester City at a comparable level to De Bruyne and yet his name is seldom mentioned in connection with Manchester United's French international.

Why, then, the infatuation with linking the two? In media and social media alike, the invocation of the one will almost always presage someone, somewhere responding with a mention of the other.

"Creme de la Prem: Kevin De Bruyne or Paul Pogba?" screams The Sun  "Paul Pogba DESTROYED in rant with huge Kevin De Bruyne comparison," blares the Express. 

Not willing to be left behind, the broadsheets chip in. According to the Independent headline "Kevin De Bruyne is the Premier League's best player but Paul Pogba is far more important." 

Everywhere you look, whenever someone is talking Paul then you are reminded "We need to talk about Kevin".

Are there any similarities?

Which raises the question: are there any similarities between the two?

Yes, they both play in central midfield. But where Kevin De Bruyne has made the Free Eight role in Pep Guardiola's system his own, Pogba has been moved about in various combinations of midfield configurations before being consigned, at least by the prevailing feeling, to a left-sided position of a midfield three.

Yes, they are both nominally creative players. But while Pogba often creates chances with dinked balls into the box, De Bruyne's chances usually come from low whipped balls into the feet of his teammates.

Yes, they are both productive players. But while Pogba has a good assist rate this season, De Bruyne has become the king of the second assist - the assist before the assist.

Yes, they are both ball carriers. But where De Bruyne's movement has more of an economy to it, Pogba's feels more flamboyant and perhaps rangier. 

Great as they both might be, then, they certainly feel great in different ways.

A tale of two philosophies

Of course, the wider context in which they find themselves in has added to the narrative quality that these two players share.

Paul Pogba plays for, so the song goes, 'Park the bus, park the bus, Man United'. De Bruyne, however, features in a team that is considered one of the most attractive in Premier League history.

This is a battle, therefore, not simply between individuals but between ideas. Pogba represents a team who propound the virtues of pragmatism, low-risk defensive football which looks to monitor game state and benefit from opposition mistakes.

His Belgian counterpart, on the other hand, stands for a more idealistic account of football: the control of space through movement. Call one positive, one negative if you must. However you look at it, these are entirely separate schools of thought.

Pogba and De Bruyne, then, could simply be ciphers for a broader debate about what football 'is' or at least how it should be.

Wrong place, wrong time

And yet there is a feeling that, somewhere in the ether, something went wrong.

Surely the expressive showman should be at the team which celebrates idealism? Surely the efficient producer should be at the team that stands for pragmatism?

But perhaps this is why it is that the two are endlessly conjoined - the one Romulus to the other's Remus. Perhaps the thought is that, by being misplaced in the wrong system, the two individuals add another layer to the discussion about what football should be.

If one of the best players in the world can play in a pragmatic system, so it seems the logic goes, then is that system not flawed?

Here's the thing: Paul Pogba's ability is not doubted. However poorly he can play - and he has played poorly at times this season - there is always the sense in the aftermath of the game that the fault is as much tactical as it is individual.

The recent falling out regarding Pogba and his often-irascible manager Jose Mourinho sees this debate writ large: the Frenchman wants Mourinho to change the system to suit him. Mourinho, it appears, disagrees.

What is football?

What of Kevin De Bruyne in all this? In recent times, the Belgium international has become something of an apologist for Guardiola's system.

Giving a good impression of a modern-day Johan Cruyff, De Bruyne seems to view himself as a mere cog within the wider machine of football. 

He 'believes', it transpires, in what Pep Guardiola thinks football is. He runs for the team. He shoots for the team. He passes for the team. He thinks for the team. There are no questions about how the system suits him, therefore, just simply questions about how he can suit the system.

Which is not to say that De Bruyne is morally superior to Pogba: Real Madrid and PSG have shown how individualism can trump collectivism time and time again this season.

But it does say something about the fact that the public's ideas about what football is are changing. De Bruyne is celebrated as a representative for a new football - Guardiola's football - which celebrates the collective over the individual. 

The debates about Pogba and De Bruyne, therefore, go deeper than simple questions about individual talent. They go deep into the question about how football should be.

Why do you think the Pogba/De Bruyne debate has become so central this season? Let us know by commenting in the section below.