An enigma: Paul Pogba’s departure instead of an expensive new contract should be a good sign for Manchester United
In the mid-1960s, after a very successful season, Dennis Law went on to become ‘King of the Stratford End’ at Old Trafford. Manchester United Manager Matt Busby demanded a pay increase. Upon his return from his native Scotland, as the new season began, Law found himself among the players placed on the transfer list. United’s talisman, a part of Trinity, had to apologize to Busby for his ‘mistake’.
In 2003, Alex Ferguson ousted David Beckham because the manager felt that the superstar footballer had undermined his authority. Ferguson later wrote in his autobiography: “It doesn’t matter if it’s Alex Ferguson or Pete the Plumber. The manager’s name is irrelevant. Authority is what counts… That was the death knell for him.”
In 2018, after United sacked Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba posted a cryptic tweet, apparently reveling in schadenfreude. United were slowly losing their winning mojo and identity following Ferguson’s retirement, but it was a defining moment in terms of club culture and the complete dismantling of Busby and Ferguson’s legacy. A starstruck was Ed Woodward, the club’s former executive vice president, in Pogba’s thrill to stardom, with the Frenchman in his battle with Mourinho. Pogba, fresh from his World Cup win with France, was the club’s best-selling brand at the time and only two years earlier, United had forked £89 million to bring Juventus back to Old Trafford.
The rise of player power will eventually make the dressing room toxic. Two more managers – Ole Gunnar Solskjor and Ralph Rangnik – fell victim to it, forcing the club to eventually undergo a cultural reset under their new manager, Erik ten Haag. From afar it appeared that Pogba, who has once again left United as a free agent, was the very epitome of player power, something Mourinho reportedly called a “virus” in front of his teammates.
In 2012, when Pogba first left United, he was a rising star. Negotiations over the midfielder’s joining Juventus led to Ferguson calling the player’s agent Mino Raiola – who passed away recently – an “s…bag”. The legendary former manager also argued that Pogba had disrespected the club. This time, Pogba is leaving United as an enigma, with 39 goals and 51 appearances in 233 matches.
Opinions are divided as to whether Pogba failed at United or was it the other way around. The club never made the right signing to complement its most expensive player. He never held a steady position on the pitch, playing as a No. 6, a No. 10, on the left wing and as a false nine. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes restricted Pogba’s attacking presence and curtailed his independence, which he enjoys while playing for his national team. Still, he delivered some magical moments on the pitch, but for a player of his talent, they were few and far between. He never looked as committed as Juan Mata. Also his injury record was very poor.
At times, Pogba openly flirted with a move away from United, as his agent had publicly run away from the club. Raiola’s interview on the eve of United’s make-or-break Champions League match against RB Leipzig in December 2020 was arguably the worst. According to a report in The Athletic, this caused a major distraction in the dressing room, as United lost the match and went back to the Europa League. Pogba has never publicly denied his agent. When Raiola offered to offer his client to Manchester City, he also hired his own lawyer.
The iconic former United captain Roy Keane was critical of Pogba. In an interview with Sky Sports two years ago, he said: “What would I say about Pogba, we have been saying for the past year or two that he needs to lead more with the team. I don’t think he wants to be a leader. I think he will enjoy that Harry Maguire has come to the club showing various leadership skills. And obviously Fernandes, leadership skills on the pitch. And I think Pogba likes it.
“I don’t think he necessarily wants to be the main person. He probably wants to be the main person of things on social media, but on the pitch he’s thinking, ‘I’m glad of it, I’ll just be under that radar’ We’ve always said he has that quality, and I think he never really wanted to be that leader at Man United. He doesn’t need to be now because there are a few more guys around him and it seems that he is enjoying a little more.
Keane’s comment is true. The real marker of a player’s time in a club is the reception from the match watchers. Fans called the “f… of Pogba” at Old Trafford after United’s game against Norwich in April. The player answered it with his ear, but as it turned out, there was no way out.
With Old Trafford and Pogba leaving a new era, an expensive new contract should not bode well for United. But losing a player of his caliber twice for free certified terrible business reflects the way the club is doing at the moment.