By Simon Stone |BBC Sport|
Manchester United staff greeted news of Paul Pogba’s publicly stated desire to leave Old Trafford with a weary sigh.
It was, after all, nothing new.
Last August, Pogba’s high-profile agent Mino Raiola put together a deal for the France midfielder to join Barcelona. Four months before that, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola revealed Raiola had offered Pogba to him.
It is the kind of agitation that persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to get rid of Pogba back in 2012, the former United boss concluding that the Frenchman’s undoubted talent was not worth the hassle that came with having him around.
Pogba is a brilliant player. A World Cup winner. It may have been a surprise to many but he was the only non-City or Liverpool player to make it into last season’s PFA Premier League team of the year.
As the impact of Pogba’s interview in Tokyo sank in, the message from United was the same as it was last year. They have no interest in selling their £89m record signing and expect him to be in their squad when they open their Premier League campaign against Chelsea on 11 August.
On social media at least, many United supporters lamented their club’s stance. To them, as with Ferguson, the 26-year-old is not worth it.
Yet, there are some very good reasons why the club are in no rush to push Pogba out.
Success or failure?
|Man Utd player stats in 2018-19|
|1||Paul Pogba (13)||Paul Pogba (9)||Paul Pogba (2,068)||Paul Pogba (105)||Luke Shaw (55)|
|2||Romelu Lukaku (12)||Marcus Rashford (6)||Nemanja Matic (1,836)||Marcus Rashford (84)||Ander Herrera (54)|
|3||Anthony Martial (10)||Luke Shaw (4)||Luke Shaw (1,658)||Romelu Lukaku (55)||Ashley Young (52)|
|4||Marcus Rashford (10)||Ander Herrera (3)||Victor Lindelof (1,490)||Anthony Martial (39)||Nemanja Matic (50)|
|5||Jesse Lingard (4)||Alexis Sanchez (3)||Ashley Young (1,376)||Jesse Lingard (32)||Paul Pogba (47)|
Pogba described his return to Manchester United in 2016 as “destiny”. It certainly did not happen by accident. This was a deal club officials had been pushing for from the moment Ferguson retired in 2013.
Senior United staff felt the Frenchman possessed both the ability and charisma to make a positive contribution at Old Trafford, and over the past three seasons there have been moments when Pogba’s talent has shone brightly.
In the Premier League alone, he has scored 24 times and produced 23 assists in 95 games. During that period, United have come sixth twice and second once.
The comparable figures for Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne are 16 goals and 36 assists from 92 appearances, and the Belgian has played in a team that has just won back-to-back titles.
In addition, Pogba scored the opener in United’s Europa League final win over Ajax in Stockholm in 2017.
Balanced against this has to come doubts over the player’s commitment and attitude. Former boss Jose Mourinho was so annoyed by Pogba that, last season, he told him he would never captain United again while he was at the club. It was telling that in Mourinho’s final game, a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on 16 December, Pogba remained on the bench throughout.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer chose to put his faith in Pogba when he succeeded Mourinho. The reward was eight goals and six assists in the first 10 games Pogba played for the Norwegian. The outcome was eight wins and two draws.
The next 10 were a different story. Pogba’s contribution was two penalties.
The team’s form faded alongside the Frenchman’s: two wins, three draws – including an embarrassing one at Huddersfield – and five defeats, ending with the tepid home loss to already relegated Cardiff.
It begs the question: is Pogba a symptom of United’s inconsistency, or one of the main causes?
The commercial angle
It is worth recalling that the official confirmation of Pogba’s transfer from Juventus took place at 00:35 BST. United have never offered an explanation for this but it is widely assumed to be timed to make maximum impact on their major commercial markets in Asia and North America.
The announcement included a video in which Pogba appeared out of the shadows with a red devil marked in his hair. It was followed by series of videos from sponsors, and one from rapper and grime artist Stormzy.
In the modern game, commercial aspects count. United have talked to prospective signings about the positive impact joining them can have on their own social media followings.
Pogba is the only member of United’s squad to have more Instagram followers (35.2 million) than his club (29.2 million). Goalkeeper David de Gea is his only team-mate to have more than 10 million followers.
Adidas is his main sponsor, as well as United’s.
Arguably, more than any player in the Premier League, Pogba is a commercial asset.
For those who do not feel such issues matter, it is worth noting that Juventus only sanctioned Cristiano Ronaldo’s £99.2m signing from Real Madrid last summer after their commercial department had assessed the likely impact the Portuguese five-time Ballon d’Or winner would have off the pitch, in the same way as their football section had done about his likely on-pitch contribution.
Where could he go?
Real Madrid have long been touted as having an interest in Pogba and the Spanish giants’ coach Zinedine Zidane has spoken highly of his compatriot.
But Real have already spent over 300m euros (£267m) this summer. They would not get Pogba without spending at least 150m euros (£134m) more.
They have players they can offload, including Gareth Bale.
United though, are not interested in the 29-year-old Wales forward. Solskjaer wants to stop the trend of buying big-name players with no overall plan. He is keener on younger alternatives who have the work ethic he demands and are willing to learn and develop.
A return to Juventus has also been spoken of. But, having spent so much last summer on Ronaldo, the Italian champions would also need departures to create space for arrivals, especially as they have already signed one central midfielder on a big contract this summer in former Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey.
Paris St-Germain have the financial muscle – and may be looking for a big name if either Neymar or Kylian Mbappe leave as has been rumoured – but apart from that, it is not obvious to see who is in a position to buy Pogba from a club who have no reason to sell.
What happens now?
In the short term, probably nothing.
Pogba is on his holidays. He was on a promotional trip to Asia when he gave the interview that has caused such waves back in Europe.
It is doubtful whether United have an appetite to verify exactly what he meant at the moment. They also know Pogba is tied to a contract that has two years left to run, with the option of another that could keep him at Old Trafford until 2022.
However, before they take a stance, Solskjaer will be asked for his input. United’s players are due back for pre-season training on 1 July and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward needs to have a negotiating stance confirmed before then.
Unless United’s present position changes, there are a few key dates to bear in mind.
On 7 July, they fly to Australia for the start of their pre-season tour, a trip that takes in four games, with stops in Perth, Singapore and Shanghai.
By the time they return, on 26 July, there will only be two weeks until the English transfer window closes.
Although the Italian transfer window does not close until 23 August and the Spanish one on 2 September, realistically, United are not going to sell one of their key players if they are unable to buy a replacement.