Paul Pogba at Manchester United: No plan, no love and yet still feted by Europe's top clubs
For a glimpse into why Paul Pogba’s time at Manchester United was never truly harmonious, let’s rewind to a scene at the club’s Carrington complex in autumn 2018.
Jose Mourinho was the manager then and had instructed Pogba to stay away due to injury. Then Mourinho called a squad meeting.
He made a speech on leadership, pointing to Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata. “Remember who I am,” Mourinho told his audience. “Ask the Chelsea boys — Nemanja, Juan — they know the real me. Players cannot be captain when they want to leave.”
Mourinho was laying the groundwork for stripping Pogba of the chance to wear the armband again and, in the eyes of United’s players, had strategically positioned a man who’d been key to France winning the World Cup a few months earlier as a player who wanted out on that particular day. Pogba would have been in the room otherwise.
As Mourinho spoke, his team-mates reported back to Pogba. A couple of players sent him WhatsApp voicenotes of the talks as they were ongoing.
Pogba had stood in for club captain Antonio Valencia on three occasions that season and, while he was not officially next in line, that had become the assumption. Mourinho would go on to remove that status from Pogba in another meeting. Pogba was in this one and was told in front of his team-mates.
After losing a Carabao Cup tie to Derby County, which Pogba watched from the stands, Mourinho said: “I made the decision for Paul not to be the second captain anymore. But no fallout, no problems at all. The same person that decided Paul is not the second captain anymore is the same person that decided Paul was the second captain — myself.”
The episode underlines how circumstances unseen publicly might have affected the relationship between player and club, and therefore Pogba’s performances.
Mourinho had his reasons. Pep Guardiola had revealed ahead of a Mancunian derby in April of that year that Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola had offered Manchester City the chance to sign the Frenchman. That summer, Pogba asked United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to consider offers from Barcelona. By June 2019, he spoke openly about wanting a “new challenge”.
Nevertheless, Pogba is a player who likes to be loved and, had a manager with greater patience for him presided over his first two and half seasons back at United after four years with Juventus, then perhaps the desire to stay would have been stronger.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a different, less confrontational approach when he stepped in after Mourinho’s sacking and got close to bringing the best out of Pogba in periods.
Such was Pogba’s mood under Solskjaer that he sent his manager text messages in the summer of 2020, after United had rallied to a third-place finish in the Premier League, asking for a new contract. Solskjaer replied that he was pressing the board but ultimately all United did was trigger the extension in Pogba’s existing deal, worth £290,000 per week.
That outcome left Pogba deflated, so when United did present a new, improved contract following the 2020-21 campaign — when the midfielder had scored crucial goals in a brief challenge for the title — he wanted to wait rather than sign.
United’s offer has stayed untouched on the table since. And now Pogba is departing Old Trafford as a free agent, mostly likely heading to Juventus for the second time.
Whatever the form and injury record of Pogba, his availability for a transfer fee of zero this summer piqued the interest of several of Europe’s top clubs. Undoubtedly the most eye-catching of those clubs are Manchester City.
The idea that City’s approach was designed to antagonise the red half of Manchester — or form part of some elaborate scheme to provoke United into a reaction — can be ridiculed by the fact that Guardiola personally met Pogba to discuss a move across town. Guardiola explained in the warmest terms why he wanted Pogba to join City.
Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, then presented a significant contract offer. The salary was not as high as the one Kevin De Bruyne is on, or new signing Erling Haaland will be, but the proposal placed Pogba among City’s top earners.
Pogba considered it, but was conscious of the media furore that would be triggered by swapping Old Trafford for the Etihad and, more importantly, after his home was burgled in March he felt a change of scenery was required. He has, for the most part, been settled with his wife Zulay and their two children in Cheshire, living close to team-mate Victor Lindelof.
Paris Saint-Germain made a contract offer a week before the season finished, but it was lower than the one from Juventus. Complicating matters was the fact PSG were in the midst of a dramatic swoop to tie Kylian Mbappe down for three more years.
Mbappe is a good friend of Pogba’s in the France squad, thus heightening the appeal for him returning to their hometown. But the finances required to persuade Mbappe to spurn the lure of Real Madrid meant PSG’s pot for paying Pogba was reduced. The musical chairs did, though, mean Real had more budget to spend and Bernabeu executives intimated to Pogba he would get an offer from them too.
The attraction for Pogba to go back to Juventus, where he won four Scudetti and played in the Champions League final, has always been strong and the Italian club are optimistic they can complete the deal. Pogba adored Turin when he was there from 2012 to 2016 and had a good bond with the fans and Max Allegri, the manager for that 2015 run to European club football’s biggest stage who is now in charge again after a two-year break.
Juventus’ bid to sign Pogba will be helped by a tax break if he signs before June 30.
The Growth Decree was introduced by the Italian government to attract talent and stop the brain-drain from the country. Players who become taxpayers for two years will be taxed at a lower threshold (around 25 per cent instead of 45 per cent), which reduces the burden on clubs and makes it easier for them to offer more competitive net salaries. For a player such as Pogba, who will turn 30 during next season and is likely signing his last big contract, this is a sizeable incentive.
Rafaela Pimenta has been conducting the negotiations on behalf of Pogba after Raiola’s recent passing. Pimenta has been a lawyer at Raiola’s agency for 18 years. It was Raiola who took Pogba to Juventus the first time, and Pogba was so pleased with how that transfer worked out — launching his global stardom — that he had deep gratitude for Raiola until he died.
Occasionally, Raiola said things without consulting Pogba first — such as the interview given on the eve of United’s make-or-break Champions League tie with RB Leipzig in December 2020. Raiola insisted Pogba’s time at United was “over”, causing a major distraction in the dressing room before kick-off.
Pogba did not directly contradict that statement, or others, because of that appreciation he felt for his agent and also because he recognised Raiola, in these moments, was partly building his own brand. On Instagram four days later, Pogba posted to say the future was “far” and he remained “1000%” involved in United’s team.
Solskjaer kept a cool head, talked regularly with Pogba, and drew out some of his best form in games at Burnley, Fulham, AC Milan and Tottenham between January and April last year. In the Europa League final though, Pogba caused confusion by insisting on coming off before the penalty shootout against Villarreal. Limping slightly, he did not feel equipped to take a kick and Solskjaer had to shuffle his substitutions.
Some feel the prospect of missing from 12 yards, coupled with the possible opprobrium from United fans and pundits, affected Pogba’s mindset.
That awkward dynamic has been a consistent theme of his last six years.
Pogba’s last United appearance was at Anfield in April when he withdrew, hobbling, after just 10 minutes’ play, with the away crowd leaving little interpretation about their feelings. Symbolic, perhaps.
The realisation that Pogba had been injured, wincing as he tried to get the attention of referee Martin Atkinson when Liverpool broke away to score the game’s opening goal after five minutes, came later.
Commentating for Sky Sports, Gary Neville said he believed he was witnessing Pogba’s final moments in a United shirt and his prediction proved accurate. Pogba, who had carried a heel problem into that game, did not come back from the calf injury he subsequently sustained.
Perhaps at a push, after working to get fit on days when the squad was off, he could have strapped himself up for the final day at Crystal Palace, but there are scant few players who would risk jeopardising a transfer when just a Europa League place is at stake for the club they are about to leave.
Pogba was not at Selhurst Park as United completed their worst ever Premier League season and, along with several other first-teamers, he also missed the squad and staff meal at Wing’s restaurant four days earlier.
It seems a trick of the mind now that Pogba began last season in electric form, with seven assists in his first four matches. The range of passing reminded us that he had a unique skill set in that regard at United, and possibly Europe. He still finished the season tied seventh in the Premier League assists chart alongside Harry Kane and Reece James with nine. Pogba played just 20 games, James 26 and Kane 37.
Even as Pogba was pinging balls about against Leeds on the opening day to set up four goals — a feat to be expected for a player of his price tag, according to Neville’s Sky colleague Graeme Souness — United knew a reckoning was coming.
When privately pressed about how Pogba might affect United’s transfer strategy, one senior executive said the club had a solution in mind. Whether that was to let him go for nothing this summer only United know, but an inability to seize the issue sooner removed the club’s chances of receiving a fee.
As with the team overall, Pogba’s bright start to 2021-22 did not last. He struggled against John McGinn as United lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa in September and coach Mike Phelan felt compelled to challenge him in a semi-friendly, semi-serious way as they walked off the pitch together.
“Any chance, son?” Phelan was heard to have asked.
Pogba took the message as intended, but that type of question was at the crux of his time at United.
His talent was renowned and appreciated, so there was often a feeling of unfulfillment that he could not drive the team to success. He did not live up to his £89 million fee, but how much of that is down to him and how much down to the club is open to debate.
United, evidently, did not have a clear plan for him when he signed.
International football is inherently slower and less regular, perhaps suiting Pogba better, but undeniably the France team also works in a system to get the best from him — most recently in a 3-5-2 system where Pogba predominantly gets on the ball offensively.
At Juventus, Pogba had operated on the left of a midfield three, with licence to get forward due to the protection afforded by a dedicated defensive midfielder.
Last season alone in the Premier League, he started in defensive midfield six times, central midfield twice, on the left wing on five occasions, and at No 10 twice. He even pushed on as a false nine in the derby at the Etihad.
United broke the world record transfer fee without a clear strategy for how Pogba might fit in on the pitch.
Clubs who have been in talks with Pogba ahead of this summer have drilled into how he would be used if he signed for them, with a sense expressed that United have not given him a platform to fully flourish.
By the same token, there have been times when United have wished for greater expressions of unity.
Pogba frustrated Solskjaer by taking longer than expected to recover from an ankle injury that limited him to two league appearances between September and March in the 2019-20 season, being pictured in Dubai and Miami rather than rehabilitating at Carrington.
The player had permission to travel and had played on through pain for several weeks of that campaign, though. He eventually told team-mates words to the effect of, “I can’t do what I need to do.”
By the time he returned, when football resumed in the June after the pandemic forced a three-month hiatus, Bruno Fernandes had been signed in the winter window and was United’s new poster boy. Having started that season as one of two deep midfielders behind Andreas Pereira as No 10, Pogba had even less opportunity to play in his preferred position higher up because of Fernandes.
Darren Fletcher helped with technical advice on playing off the left, but on other occasions Pogba felt the double pivot role failed to bring out his best, often putting him in positions ill-suited to his best football. His physical stature suggested a defensive side to Pogba’s game that was not really there. Naturally creative, he would overplay in dangerous positions and tee up opposition counter-attacks. He never got to grips with tackling.
He acknowledged to team-mates that he lost his head when sent on at half-time of this season’s humbling by Liverpool at Old Trafford in October, diving in on Naby Keita after a loose pass by Fernandes. Solskjaer has told his players to keep a clean sheet in the second half but Pogba had wanted to make an impression because Liverpool were laughing at their ease of victory. Instead, he was sent off on the hour mark.
Pogba liked Solskjaer, and got on with replacement Ralf Rangnick too. The pair had a productive meeting early on; Rangnick was straight with Pogba and they talked football.
The only occasion when a touch of tension came was when Rangnick left Pogba out of the line-up for the 1-0 defeat at Everton in April by reminding him his foot was sore, as if by way of explanation. Pogba had been playing through the issue without complaint, so the detail seemed superfluous to Rangnick’s decision to drop him. Ironically, Pogba had to be sent on in the first half of that game when Fred suffered an injury.
Rangnick valued Pogba’s efforts to mediate aspects of the dressing room. He was also one of the players to command major respect from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo said he wished he had played with Pogba at Real Madrid, because of the variety and quality of his passing. Pogba lobbied Ronaldo to be more constructive with feedback for younger players, such as when Jadon Sancho failed to square the ball when through against Brighton in February.
At the final whistle of that 2-0 win, in which Ronaldo scored the opening goal, Pogba gave encouragement to centre-back Harry Maguire whose final touch had been to clear the ball into the stands. “We have to believe in ourselves,” Pogba said. “You’re an £80 million player for a reason.”
On another occasion, when a meeting of some players with Rangnick about form turned unexpectedly into a targeted tactical discussion, Pogba went back later to apologise to United’s interim manager for the way things had gone.
That’s why, whatever the criticisms — which went as far as Mourinho once branding Pogba a “virus” — he always remained a liked figure in the dressing room. Staff in the media department appreciated the way he would volunteer for interviews without hesitation if another player had dropped out.
Others felt Pogba was a good player and person in the wrong environment; he might not be the right foundation for a team, but put into a winning one he could be the icing on the cake.
It has long been assumed he would leave this summer, but he genuinely thought about accepting United’s contract offer last autumn because the club seemed to be on a good path. Even in February, there was a feeling Pogba might want to sign fresh terms if United got to the Champions League final. That proved fanciful, of course.
Lifting the Europa League in 2017, at the end of Pogba’s first season back from Italy, was the high point of a return that has not worked out as hoped.
Could a comeback go better in Turin?
There may be fatigue to the Pogba story at United, but many at the club will be watching his next steps with interest.
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