Paul Pogba: Where it went wrong at Man Utd for the World Cup winner
Paul Pogba summed up the general feeling about his time at Manchester United quite neatly in a recent interview with French newspaper Le Figaro.
“You have to be honest, the last five years have not satisfied me – really not at all.”
When he gave the interview, it was just under five years since Pogba opened the scoring for United in their Europa League final victory against Ajax.
That marked the end of his first season since a much-hyped return to Old Trafford, when United paid a then-world record £89m to bring back a player they had in their academy but had lost on a free transfer to Juventus after Sir Alex Ferguson refused to offer Pogba’s controversial agent Mino Raiola any guarantees about how much game-time the player would get.
But United have won nothing since. Pogba leaves Old Trafford for a second time, six prime years of his club football career unfulfilled.
“This year it is dead,” said Pogba in his recent interview. “We will not win anything. I want to win trophies.”
So where did it all go wrong?
An eye-watering deal
‘Pogback’, trumpeted the club’s social media channels on 9 August, 2016. “I’m back,” said Pogba, at the end of a brilliantly produced 26-second video clip confirming his arrival. With a collaboration with British rap artist Stormzy as well, this was a very modern transfer.
The fact Pogba was, and remains, one of Adidas’ highest-profile athletes and was sealing a union with United, who were just 12 months into their own 10-year deal with the German sportswear giant, meant the deal made sense commercially.
New manager Jose Mourinho wanted him. And for chief executive Ed Woodward, starting to feel the heat after sacking two managers, it made sense too.
This was a chance to right Ferguson’s wrong, to prove United could attract high-profile players and bring an academy graduate back into the fold.
However, there was a heavy price to pay. Raiola was far too shrewd an operator to let it be any other way.
According to information put into the public domain by the Football Leaks website, which has never been contested at Old Trafford, Pogba’s contract was a basic £7.75m-a-year. A loyalty bonus of £3.75m-a-year was also included. If United qualified for the Champions League, Pogba netted a further £1.85m. In addition, Pogba had a £3m-a-year image rights deal. Raiola himself was paid an astonishing £41m.
This is what United were signing up to by bringing Paul Pogba back to the club.
Where do you play him?
This still feels incredible, but if you journey back through Pogba’s time at United, there is no consistent thread for where Pogba should be used.
As part of a deep-lying two man midfield? On the left of a three? As a number 10? Wide of a more advanced attacking unit beyond two holders?
It is apparent that even with France – with whom he won the 2018 World Cup – Pogba’s strengths are offensive. His control and range of passing is world class. If he runs from deep, he is a major threat. But he needs cover. Defensively he can be a liability.
Yet in that first season, when Pogba was given licence to roam forward, quite often Zlatan Ibrahimovic was dropping back into the same spaces the Frenchman wanted to occupy.
At the time, it felt like a teething problem and something that would be sorted out naturally given the Swede’s age meant he was hardly likely to be Pogba’s team-mate for long.
But United never found an adequate solution. Even without Ibrahimovic, their major offensive players: Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, liked to operate in the same areas where Pogba excels.
If he dropped deep, it exposed United’s midfield. The axis of Fred and Scott McTominay has been derided. Neither have anywhere close to Pogba’s talent. But Pogba simply does not run hard enough, often enough to take one of them out without United being at risk of getting completely overrun.
“It’s simple with France, I play and I play in my position – I know my role and I feel the confidence of the coach and the players,” Pogba told Le Figaro. “It’s normal to feel a difference at Manchester United because it’s hard to be consistent when you often have a change to your position, or the team system, or your partners.”
An already unsatisfactory situation was exacerbated by the off-field issues Pogba brought.
Jose Mourinho stripped Pogba of the vice-captaincy at United in September 2019 after the Frenchman had criticised his tactics. By the time Mourinho took charge for the final time – at Liverpool three months later – his most expensive signing was unused on the bench.
Mourinho’s exit appeared to signal Pogba and his team-mates had won a power battle. A ‘Caption This’ post on Pogba’s Twitter feed immediately after the announcement certainly indicated so and drew a stinging rebuke from former United skipper Gary Neville.
For a while harmony broke out as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed an extended honeymoon period as the Portuguese’s successor. But further issues were not far away.
Raiola was happy to stir the pot on Pogba’s behalf, saying he had spoken to Juventus about a return early in 2020, then getting into a spat with Solskjaer when he effectively said what happened to the Frenchman was none of the super-agent’s business because he was contracted to United.
The chances are, Solskjaer was ready to sanction a transfer at that point. But when the pandemic hit, United knew they would get nothing like the player’s value in a fee, so they kept Pogba and tried to negotiate a contract extension to protect their asset. It didn’t work.
A sad end
Pogba made 20 Premier League appearances in his final season as a United player. He scored once – against Burnley – and claimed nine assists. Four of them came in the opening game against Leeds.
That match at Old Trafford is one of Pogba’s stand-out United moments. The famous 3-2 comeback win at Manchester City in 2018, when he scored twice, was another. That Europa League final against Ajax and his volleyed winner at Burnley two seasons ago were others.
But they were fleeting moments. Each injury absence came with the suspicion among some fans that Pogba no longer wanted to play for the club.
When he left the field after what turned out to be his last appearance for United, against Liverpool in April, he was jeered off by his own supporters.
And now it is over.