Paul Pogba was brought back by Manchester United in the summer of 2016 for a fee of €105 million. It was seen as the necessary price to be paid to bring back the player who was allowed to leave on a free transfer to Juventus in August 2012. There were murmurs that letting him go may have been one of Sir Alex Ferguson's biggest mistakes. Ed Woodward and José Mourinho decided that he was would be the face of their project on and off the field.
It worked relatively well for the first couple of seasons. United entered the UEFA Champions League by winning the Europa League in 2017 and finished 2nd in the Premier League in 2018. The knowledge has come with hindsight but it was a below-par squad as Ole Gunnar Solskjær's rebuild goes to show.
He was expected to kick on after the appointment of the Norwegian, having worked with him before in the United reserves. Instead, he has been inconsistent and plagued by injuries. The latest setback has been confounding, to say the least. Andre Gomes has already come back after a horror ankle injury and there is still no timeline for the return of the French star.
Meanwhile, United have made slow and steady progress on the field. Sure, there have been exasperating games where the team was crying out for a player of Pogba's quality, but his absence has allowed others to truly step up. One must only look at United's starting midfield in the 5-0 hammering of Club Brugge at Old Trafford on Thursday night; Scott McTominay, Fred and Bruno Fernandes.
Before his injury, Scott McTominay became pivotal as his performances led to an increase in stature and importance to the team. At 6'4", he is an imposing player who can be a threat in both boxes. However, having watched United play this season, his effect on the team has extended beyond mere statistics of goals and distance covered.
Coming through the academy, he understands what it means to play for United. The 'cultural reboot' mentioned by Woodward is personified by him; humble off the pitch, arrogant on it, getting into tussles with the opposition to defend his teammates.
Another player to have made the leap is Fred. Already written off in some quarters as a disastrous signing, he has bounced back to win a Player of the Month award for January 2020 and deservedly so. He has been ever-present for the side in the absence of Pogba.
His ability on the ball has reminded fans and neutrals that he is from Brazil indeed. His willingness to work hard and improve his game has been key to his improved performances. Here's Michael Carrick talking about him:
“He’s stuck at it, he’s learnt and he’s been willing to put the work in and try to improve. He’s been fantastic for quite some time now and I’m sure there’s more to come, because he’s that kind of boy. He wants to keep improving, he wants to keep learning and getting better and there’s plenty more to improve, like any player, so we’ll keep working at it.”
However, ask any United fan and they will credit the winter signing of Bruno Fernandes for their revival over the past month. It's difficult to argue against his impact on this United team. This goes beyond his contribution of 2 goals and 2 assists in less than 350 minutes of football. In his very first game, he was directing players where to move on the field and when to make forward runs.
He commands respect and does not allow for a substandard performance from his teammates. Now that is proper midfield general. He has dictated play with ease since he knows what he wants to do with the ball even before he receives it, much like United's Ginger Prince in the past. It's no surprise that Solskjær compared him to Paul Scholes.
This is the kind of impact that Woodward and Mourinho believed Pogba was going to make. It hasn't worked out that way so far. People point to his performances with Juventus and France to conclude that the problem is United. It's not as simple as that.
He was a colossal player for Juventus because his off-the-field shenanigans wouldn't have been amusing for Antonio Conte and players like Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon. It's the same story with the French national team. His teammates (like Varane and Kanté) are serial winners and Pogba would have to raise his game to keep up. This acts as motivation to truly showcase his extraordinary ability as a football player.
At United too, his best performances came when Carrick and Ibrahimovic were still in the dressing room. After their departures, he has had to assume a leadership role and maybe that's not enough motivation for him. Players like Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are not going to call him out on his foolhardiness.
To go with that, Nemanja Matic is back in the fold and his move to Inter is not a certainty anymore. A new midfield signing along with some minutes for James Garner like Ole has done with Greenwood, and you start to question where Pogba fits in the scheme of things.
This puts United in an unusually strong position in any potential negotiations with his troublesome agent Mino Raiola. He has been a nuisance for the club, touting his client on and off throughout his stint here. There is no pressure on United to compromise even if Real Madrid, Juventus or PSG come calling for him. Raiola will have to sit down on the table and work out a deal which pleases United, be it a transfer or an unlikely renewal.
Sir Alex has mentioned his distrust of Raiola in his 2015 book Leading.
“He and I were like oil and water. From then on, our goose was cooked because Raiola had been able to ingratiate himself with Paul and his family and the player signed with Juventus.”
The tragedy is that if judged on talent alone, the World Cup winner would probably be the first name on the team-sheet. That has never been the case though and it might just make Pogba expendable. The wily Scot knew better after all!Published 28 Feb 2020, 17:17 IST