Pogba is the poster boy of football’s marriage with rampant commercialism. A wonderful footballer on the pitch, the Frenchman is a bigger star off it. Manchester United milked his marketability when they signed him in 2016 for a then world record fee of £89m from Juventus. However, three years down the line the move has neither worked out for the club nor the player, yet.
The 26-year-old had his best season as a footballer in 2018/19 campaign but scratch beneath the surface and most of his electric performances came during a spell of around two months under Solskjaer, when Manchester United looked like one of the best teams in the Premier League. His inconsistency has been a problem for Manchester United fans and many are now jumping to the side of Jose Mourinho’s assessment of the player – an extremely talented player but too inconsistent to be the lynchpin of a team in development.
The calls for Manchester United to put Pogba in his place and sell him have been growing louder since the player spoke about wanting a ‘new challenge’. There is an argument to let him go this summer. The Frenchman is set to approach the peak years of his football career and at the moment it does not seem like Manchester United are going to challenge for the Premier League or the Champions League in the near future. Why would he want to stay?
There is also the so-called ‘Coutinho effect’ – Liverpool plugging the gaps with the money they received from Barcelona. There are suggestions Manchester United could do the same if they get the figure they want from Pogba’s departure.
All of them are sound arguments, if removing the factor that Pogba is possibly the only world-class outfield player Manchester United have in their squad. Unlike Football Manager, the club are unlikely to sign two or three players to do what the Frenchman does on the pitch.
The debate whether keep or sell Pogba is more nuanced than most of the punditry around the issue. It is not as simple as bagging the money, getting rid of him and signing five players.
In fact, there are more arguments in favour of Manchester United wanting to keep Pogba at the club. The squad already need massive surgery even without the distraction of finding a replacement for the Frenchman this summer.
Pogba cannot run the show alone, no player actually can (except maybe Lionel Messi)
Pogba is still the only world-class outfield player in the current Manchester United squad. There is a lot of punditry about what he cannot do. The problem with that is that the things the Frenchman can do will be much more valuable to Solskjaer.
And although the Manchester United manager will be disappointed with Pogba going public about his will to leave, he will still be desperate to keep him. He is aware that his team played their best football when the Frenchman was unleashed last season. It is equally important to note that some of the most insipid Manchester United performances also came when the midfielder was at his ineffective best. Towards the end of the season, Manchester United needed some inspiration and their best player failed to provide it.
However, following that wonderful run of form, opponents became smarter and realised Pogba was the creative hub of Solskjaer’s side. It became increasingly apparent that he was often getting man-marked, sometimes by two players. Teams were shutting down Manchester United by shutting down the Frenchman.
But is it not obvious that the best players get man-marked? Yes, it is. But it becomes a problem for a side when that best player is head and shoulders above the others in the team. If Pogba is taken out of the Manchester United side, they become devoid of any creativity from midfield. The top teams in the world do not suffer from this issue.
Manchester City and Liverpool, are possibly the two best teams in Europe at the moment and opposing teams cannot rely on marking one or two players out of Pep Guardiola’s side. One of the reasons why they are so difficult to play against is the abundance of creative talent in the team. Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Aguero and Riyad Mahrez. They are possibly the best combination of world-class creative talent in one squad. Yes, once in a while, even they are shut down but it is almost impossible to stop them on a regular basis.
Jurgen Klopp’s side are not just about Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian forms a triumvirate of one of the deadliest attacking units in Europe alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. A functional midfield and a Virgil van Dijk led defence made them the scary proposition they are right now.
But shut down Pogba, stop Manchester United from flowing. Of course, Solskjaer’s side looked awful when the Frenchman was not effective. He is part of the problem and the solution for Manchester United. A team looking to challenge for top honours cannot be so heavily reliant on one player.
Manchester United neither have the defence nor the forward line to compensate for a lack of form from their best player.
Was Cristiano Ronaldo playing at his best every week when Manchester United won the league and European Cup double in 2008? No. But Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in attack to take the weight off him. That is what the top teams possess. Manchester United are not a top side anymore and selling their best player will not make them one.
‘We sold Ronaldo and still won the league and reached the Champions League final’
No player is bigger than Manchester United. Ronaldo was sold in 2009 but Ferguson’s side went on to win two more league titles and made the final of the Champions League in 2011.
But those were different times and a different team. It could be argued that selling Ronaldo meant Manchester United missed out on at least one more league title and possibly one more Champions League crown. It did hurt them but not as much as everyone thought.
Could the same happen if they sell Pogba? The answer is no.
Manchester United still had players such as Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and the experience of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Gary Neville to fall upon. These players softened the blow of losing a generational talent like Ronaldo at his peak. The current set-up at Old Trafford are not even a pale reflection of that side.
Losing Pogba would be the sign of a club further spiralling down
Many people are underestimating the effect of losing Pogba, the only world-class outfield player in the squad, would have on the club at the start of Solskjaer’s rebuilding job at Old Trafford next season.
For starters, it would dent the credibility of the manager, who made it clear that he wants Pogba at the heart of his new look side. The Norwegian hedged his bets on getting the best out of the Frenchman and for a short period of time, he succeeded. There are rational arguments to have that a full pre-season and some good summer acquisitions could help Solskjaer to recapture that winter form of last season.
But take Pogba out of the picture, and the prospects would look depressingly bleak even before a ball is kicked at Old Trafford.
Secondly, losing Pogba would affect the credibility of Manchester United as a club, while they still continue to struggle for relevance in England and in Europe. It already seems hard for them to attract the best talents at the moment but allowing the midfielder to leave will further damage their appeal. Manchester United should want to add talent around Pogba this summer and build a functional team around him. The Red Devils would find it extremely hard to convince a top player to join Solskjaer’s rebuild just after allowing the Frenchman to move to Turin or Madrid.
Of course, a player would likely earn more money at Manchester United but would they want that to be the reason for top talents to join them? The Red Devils would have surely learned something from the Alexis Sanchez deal.
Keep Pogba (at least next season) and rebuild
Manchester United have found themselves in a difficult situation at the moment. Keep Pogba and get accused of losing their soul or sell him and face the prospect of starting the season under a cloud of uncertainty and further erosion of credibility.
It would seem like a marriage out of convenience than love but both Manchester United and Pogba need each other next season, at least.
There are maybe a handful of clubs who would have the ability to match the midfielder’s price tag but it seems unclear whether any one of them want to pay Manchester United £160m for the Frenchman.
Irrespective of all that, Manchester United need to keep Pogba as the other possibility seems burdened with precariousness. It would mean getting rid of their best player without having a team to soften the blow.
There is a legitimate argument to have whether Leicester City and Wolves have better starting elevens than Manchester United without Pogba in Solskjaer’s side. A few more backward steps, they could risk falling further behind.
Would they risk keeping an unhappy player? Yes. But with the European Championship scheduled for next summer a player of Pogba’s ambition would like to go into the tournament with France in the best form possible. It would likely make him more focused on keeping things ticking on the pitch next season.
And can Ed Woodward and his recruitment team to adequately replace the Frenchman? Maybe not.
There is also the possibility of the Glazers wanting to keep the cash they receive from Pogba’s sale. Remember, Manchester United signed Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen for a combined fee of £19m after selling Ronaldo for £80m in 2009.
Better keep the mercurial devil fiery and in his own backyard than taking the plight by cutting him off the leash elsewhere.