Pogba struggling to deliver on a level with Chelsea's bargain buy Kante
LONDON -- They say that you get what you pay for, but that old maxim does not quite stack up when you discover that you could get three N'Golo Kantes for the price of one Paul Pogba.
Kante, the omnipresent Chelsea midfielder, cost his club a mere £29.2 million when he left Premier League champions Leicester City for Stamford Bridge last summer. At the same time, Manchester United were making Pogba the most expensive footballer in history by writing a cheque for £89m to prise the Frenchman from Juventus.
United's outlay was costly enough considering that Pogba had been allowed to leave Old Trafford for just £850,000 in 2012 following a contract dispute with former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. But on a night when Kante not only orchestrated Chelsea's FA Cup quarterfinal victory against United, but scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory, the cost, and value, of two of the most high-profile midfielders in the Premier League was brought into sharp focus by the contrasting performances of the two men.
Kante dominated the field, winning tackles, covering ground, playing passes and then scoring from 20 yards. Pogba, meanwhile, appeared lost in the crowd. He had another sharp haircut, but when the colour of your hair is the most eye-catching element of your performance, it has clearly not been a good night.
Kante and Pogba are undoubtedly different players. Kante's first priority is to protect his back four, and he does it better than anybody in the Premier League. Pogba, meanwhile, is a supreme athlete and a player who can be box-to-box, someone who has the potential to dominate and become one of the outstanding players of his generation.
But this 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge proved what has been evident now for many weeks: Kante is performing in the here and now, showing on a weekly basis why he is the outstanding candidate for the Footballer of the Year award.
But Pogba is failing to deliver for United and generating more questions than answers -- the most prevalent being: "What does he actually do?" For the money that United paid, Pogba does not score enough goals, he does not dominate games, his heading is poor to the point of being non-existent and he cannot tackle. Unless Zlatan Ibrahimovic is making a run for him on the edge of the penalty area, Pogba also struggles to find the killer pass for a teammate.
Quite simply, he is inviting the chants of "what a waste of money," which were directed at him by the Chelsea supporters as Kante spent the evening taking his France teammate back to school.
Frank Lampard, watching the game in his role as a television pundit, was gushing in his praise of Kante after the game.
"I would go so far as to say N'Golo Kante is the best central midfield player in the world right now," Lampard said. "I compared him to Claude Makelele last season, but he's got even more to his game than Makelele."
Former United defender Phil Neville, meanwhile, echoed Lampard's sentiments by extolling Kante's virtues.
"He breaks up play and then sometimes he finishes it off too," Neville said. "He's the most effective midfielder in Europe at the moment. I don't see anyone with the influence he has on team. He's a No. 6, an 8 and a 10."
Kante, of course, was no secret by the time Chelsea did the deal to sign him from Leicester last summer. The 25-year-old was a key cog in the machine that Claudio Ranieri steered to the title last season and his loss has been keenly felt by Leicester this term.
But he has become an even better player at Chelsea, where he seemingly performs the jobs of two men for Antonio Conte's team.
Kante rarely loses the ball and, when he tackles, he hardly ever concedes a foul. He is tenacious, but fair, and his goal against United -- a right-footed effort from 20 yards -- suggested he has more in his locker that we are yet to see.
Pogba certainly has more in his locker, but it appears as though he and Jose Mourinho are searching frantically for the key to unlock it. He was dominated by Kante in this game, but with Ander Herrera sent off in the 36th minute for two yellow cards, Pogba lost his midfield leg-man, so it was perhaps an uneven battle.
Pogba is a better player when he has experience alongside him. Michael Carrick helps his concentration and provides a defensive outlet, while Herrera senses the danger that Pogba continues to struggle to see.
At Juventus, he was blessed by the presence of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal in and around him in midfield -- Sami Khedira offered similar experience last season -- while the energy of Carlos Tevez in front of him also boosted his output.
With United, he is playing in an inferior team, but one that competes in a more competitive league, so his difficulties are understandable. But he cost a world-record fee for a reason and he is not showing enough to justify that right now.
Kante is proving to be a bargain, but Pogba's price tag weighs heavier by the week. At 23, he has time on his side to overcome his teething problems and he has too much talent not to come good.
But in terms of value for money, there is only one winner right now, and he is the one whose team are heading into the FA Cup semifinals.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_