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Paul Pogba Can’t Save Manchester United Alone. Nobody Can.

MANCHESTER, England — In normal circumstances, it would have been a bad day, no more than that. When Manchester United hosted Liverpool in January, Paul Pogba missed an inviting early chance. He gave away a penalty. Only the late intervention of Zlatan Ibrahimovic spared him the guilt of costing his team defeat in English soccer’s closest equivalent to Spain’s Clásico.

It was not a display Pogba will remember fondly, but, ordinarily, he would have consoled himself that these things happen. Chances are missed, penalties conceded. Players are forgiven their missteps, their errors quickly forgotten. It was not, though, an ordinary day; these were not normal circumstances.

A couple days before the match, it had emerged that Pogba would become the first Premier League player to have his own Twitter emoji. To publicize the news, every few minutes during the game Pogba’s name — in hashtag form — flashed on the electronic advertising boards that surround the Old Trafford pitch, bold letters on a bright background.

The contrast was a cruel one, but it struck a chord. Ever since Pogba returned to Manchester last summer as the world’s most expensive player — a moment commemorated in an Adidas-commissioned video starring the uber-hip grime artist Stormzy — the sense lingered that the on-field reality had not quite matched the off-field sensation.

His performances had not been uniformly poor, by any means, but the consensus ran that Pogba was something of an illusion. He was, clearly, an outstanding generator of social media content. He was the perfect poster boy for any number of slick marketing campaigns.

Exactly how good he was at being a midfielder, though, the job he is employed to do, the role from which everything else should stem, had become shrouded in doubt. More and more voices — former players, paid observers — emerged suggesting that he was more style than substance, that he was merely a designer label sewn into workman’s overalls. That day against Liverpool at Old Trafford seemed to crystallize it: Pogba was an exercise in branding, an Instagram illusion of a superstar.

Within United, of course, that criticism has been granted short shrift. Pogba is a hugely popular member of the dressing room — front and center of it, in fact, in many accounts — close not just to his contemporaries, like Jesse Lingard, but a regular dining companion for the older, more experienced Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The latter’s mother, for one, has grown deeply fond of him.

The club moved quickly to protect one of its own, to dismiss his detractors. Most often, the counterargument has centered on money. Pogba has suggested that the criticism is rooted in a fixation on how much he cost, the record transfer fee of nearly 90 million pounds (about $116 million) United paid Juventus in 2016 to bring back its prodigal son.

United’s manager, José Mourinho, has gone further, suggesting that the wages Pogba earns has made the coterie of former players tasked with analyzing his performances envious. “It is not his fault that some pundits are in real trouble with their lives and need every coin to survive, while Paul is a multimillionaire,” Mourinho said earlier this year, not entirely helpfully.

This is soccer’s instinctive reaction in this situation, the idea that a player bought for a king’s ransom is duly saddled with unrealistic expectations. It has some merit, too, but in Pogba’s case it is not the crux of the issue. No, Pogba is suffering from something else, something much more complex: English soccer’s obsession with individuals.

Writing in The Blizzard a few years ago, the journalist Scott Murray outlined a theory that Roy Race — a fictional player, hero of the cartoon strip Roy of the Rovers, first published in the 1950s — was the most pernicious influence in the history of English soccer.

Murray’s reasoning was extensive, looking into the effect Race and the lessons he offered had on things like tactics, coaching and cultural insularity, but he might have added another: The most damaging impact Race had on successive generations of fans and players was the narrative arc of his adventures.

At the end of every story, no matter how dire the situation Race’s team, Melchester Rovers, found itself, Race would emerge to save the day. Sometimes that was rescuing a hostage or foiling a terror plot; more frequently, it was bursting into the box to score a thunderous late goal.

Over the decades, Race both reflected and burnished an image of how England views soccer: as an individual sport disguised as a collective one. It is a dogma it has been unable to shake. England always has a special place in its heart for a Roy Race.

That is why Steven Gerrard, the archetypal Race character, is so revered, just as Bryan Robson, the former United captain, was before him. It is why the high point of David Beckham’s career for England’s national team is considered to be his display against Greece in 2001, when he “single-handedly” secured a 2-2 draw that took England to the World Cup.

The individual, in the collective English imagination, comes before the unit. It is why, every December, the BBC stages a grand ceremony to crown the Sports Personality of the Year, a rather woolly award handed out to the individual who has won the most hearts over the previous 12 months. There is also a team award, but it is an afterthought.

Unusually, England seems to have been ahead of the curve on this. Soccer has nurtured, in recent years, an ever-expanding cult of the individual, an M.V.P. culture possibly imported from the United States that is best illustrated by the growing significance of the Ballon d’Or, the award granted annually to the star deemed the world’s best player.

For many years, winning the Ballon d’Or was a happy consequence of collective success, not an aim in itself. The battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to see who can accrue the most of them, however, has changed that.

Now it is an acceptable ambition, one held, in fact, by Pogba. In 2015, he suggested that was his ultimate hope: not to win the Champions League, or the World Cup, but to be named world player of the year.

The paradox, of course, is that it is that fixation on individuals that has hurt Pogba the most in his first year back in England. He is not the first player to suffer from it. Mesut Özil, of Arsenal, has endured much the same treatment, criticized every time he fails to win a game entirely on his own.

“He is young and he possibly will deliver, but as it stands, he has not been the game-changer,” Frank Lampard said of Pogba this season.

“If you spend 90 million pounds, you do not want a 90 million pound problem, and I feel that is what there is now. You expect results and he has not quite delivered. We think of 90 million pounds for Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez, Ronaldo, Messi. They win games on their own. We do not know if Pogba can do that yet.”

We do not, but then we do not know it of anyone else, either. None of the players Lampard mentioned wins games on his own, no matter how much it can look like that; all of them rely on a system that is designed simply to magnify their own brilliance.

It may have cost Pere Gratacós his job as a director at Barcelona when he said Messi “would not be as good” without Neymar, Suárez, Andrés Iniesta or Gerard Piqué, but he was right.

Indeed, soccer now is more systematized than ever. The teams that thrive are not simply those that have an organized defense and a freewheeling attack, but those who drill specific patterns of play, relentlessly, into their forwards, those who harness and direct their spontaneity.

Pogba has not played on a team like that this year. United has fired only in fits and starts, struggling to overcome resilient but unremarkable Premier League fodder, while impressing in the League Cup and the Europa League. Pogba’s travails have not been the cause of that, but a symptom. Off the field, his brand may focus on his uniqueness, his individuality, but on it, he can only ever be one of many.

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