It was four years ago today that Paul Pogba left Manchester United for Juventus. He was 19, and, while highly rated, he was leaving the club as a free transfer having made just seven appearances for United, three of them in the League Cup. If the deal to take him back to United goes through, it would almost certainly be for a world record fee, perhaps as the football’s first £100 million player.
Negotiations are ongoing, with Pogba mystifyingly telling a television crew outside his hotel in New York that he could be staying at Juventus when most other indications suggest a contract worth £275,000 a week will be signed by the end of the week.
The fee looks ridiculous, of course, as though United made a terrible miscalculation, but this is a slightly different scenario to Chelsea letting Nemanja Matic go as a makeweight in a deal to sign David Luiz before re-signing him for £21 million three years later.
United was well aware that Pogba had great talent and made significant efforts to keep him, but he refused to sign a new contract and so was able to leave the club on a free transfer. Alex Ferguson, United’s manager at the time, placed the blame squarely on his agent, Mino Raiola. "There are one or two football agents I simply do not like, and Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba's agent is one of them," Ferguson write in his book Leading.
"I distrusted him from the moment I met him. We had Paul under a three-year contract, and it had a one-year renewal option, which we were eager to sign. But Raiola suddenly appeared on the scene and our first meeting was a fiasco. 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.”
Jose Mourinho evidently has no such problems with Raiola, who is also the agent of two of the players who have completed moves to United this summer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Given many expected Mourinho to deal primarily with his own agent, Jorge Mendes, that is in itself intriguing, suggesting perhaps a shift in his relationship with the two biggest agents in the game today.
Transfer fees, anyway, are capricious. The boom in television rights has given Premier League clubs more money than they’ve ever had before, and that has led to price inflation. There have already been 24 signings made by Premier League clubs this summer valued at £10 million or more. Even £30 million deals have become so commonplace that they barely raise an eyebrow anymore. Now, £100 million is an absurd amount of money, but it’s nowhere near as absurd as it was four years ago–and that’s without even factoring in the collapse in the value of the pound after the Brexit vote.
But even given all those caveats, a £100 million rise in value over four years is astonishing and indicative of Pogba’s quality. He is a complete midfielder. He scored eight goals in Serie A last season and registered a 12 assists, tied for the most in the league, but he also made 2.2 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game. He is a holding midfielder and a creative midfielder in one.
France’s Euro 2016 semifinal victory over Germany showed precisely that diversity to his game. Having played as a holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 for 70 minutes, he was liberated by a switch to 4-3-3 and move to the left of a single holder in N’Golo Kante. Immediately, he surged forward, dispossessed Shkodran Mustafi, created space with a triple wag of his left foot and then crossed, leading to Antoine Griezmann’s decisive second goal.
But that flexibility does create problems. As Irish journalist Ken Early has noted, there are times when Pogba resembles Steven Gerrard. He is a player who has everything–he can score, he can pass, he can run all day, he is string, he wins headers, he wins the ball back–and yet he lacks the tactical discipline fully to make use of those assets. Playing in a 4-2-3-1 for France, he always seemed restricted, as though he was constantly having to force himself to sit back.
At Juventus he tended to play on the left of the central midfield three in a 3-5-2, which allowed him a certain freedom to work up and down the pitch, safe in the knowledge he had a holder behind him. If he does join United, he would presumably be used on the left of midfield in a 4-3-3. Mourinho, it may be recalled, was desperate to sign Gerrard in 2005, when he would probably have used him similarly as one of the flanking players in a midfield three.
When league football resumed after the First World War in 1919, Manchester United began with a game against Derby County. Their entire team that day cost £100. Now, it stands on the verge of playing a million times that for a single player–and one it watched walk away for nothing four years ago.
There are times when modern football seems like a very strange place.