Nemanja Matic’s recent return to Chelsea has sparked a flurry of derogatory responses from fans across the English game, including those following Manchester United. A player initially signed for £1.5 million in 2009, Matic was sold to Benfica as part of the deal that bought David Luiz to Stamford Bridge in 2011, but has now rejoined the club for a fee of £21 million.
It’s hard not to wryly smile at the ill-thought-out foolishness of it all.
Yet at the very moment that the deal was being completed, it is strongly rumoured that Manchester United were in the midst of preparing a bid for Juventus central midfielder and former red Paul Pogba. For United, the statistics involved in a potential deal would make even starker reading than the Matic transfer: allowed to leave the club on a free in 2012, Pogba would cost the club around £40 million to re-sign.
Many fans continue to subscribe to the idea that Pogba wanted out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, meaning that an attempt to re-sign him should not be viewed in the same light as the Matic deal. The myth goes that the player’s arrogance and impatience got the better of him, making him unwilling to wait his turn in one of the country’s most competitive squads.
Yet this view is deeply misleading. Pogba’s failure to make it at United was not for a lack of desire. Indeed, his United story, distorted by the efforts of those who remained at the club, is one of the club’s most troublesome failures of recent years, a bewildering neglect of a world class talent who was left with no choice but to pursue his career elsewhere.
Pogba was a crucial component of the United Academy side which won the 2010/11 FA Youth Cup, an excellent team which also included the mercurial talent of Ravel Morrison. Yet during the following season, meant to be his break-through year, the Frenchman was afforded just seven appearances for United, none of which were starts and three of which took place against lowly opposition in the League Cup.
Whilst Pogba hardly left a lasting impact on the games he appeared in, his performances featured glimpses of substantial promise and were hardly dramatic disappointments. Indeed, during a 20 minute cameo in a January 2012 game against Stoke, the Frenchman had an impressive influence, forcefully imposing himself on a tight fixture and creating several genuine chances. Yet he’d go on to make just two more appearances for the club.
The lack of opportunities afforded to the Frenchman is all the more baffling considering the meek competition for a place in the starting eleven. Whilst it is widely accepted that United’s current squad is drastically lacking in midfield talent, the situation in 2011/12 was arguably just as bleak, if not more so. Until Paul Scholes was talked out of retirement for the season’s second half, United’s central midfield options consistently essentially sole of Michael Carrick, an aging Ryan Giggs and the underdeveloped Tom Cleverley.
The decisive turning point seems to have come at the end of 2011, when Ferguson, suffering from a considerable injury crisis in both defence and midfield, employed Park Ji Sung and Rafael as makeshift central midfielders in a league game at home to Blackburn. It was at this moment – when a young right back and conventional left winger were deemed preferable to him in his favoured position – that Pogba understandably decided his time was up. “United were short of players like me, but it was the manager’s decision,” Pogba said after his departure. “I couldn’t do anything about it.” United lost the match 3-2.
Ferguson always apparently prioritised the promotion of youth when gaps needed filling in his squad. So why did Pogba feature so infrequently?
By July, Pogba had agreed a four year contract with Juventus. Whilst United were willing to offer the player a new contract, his agent asked for a deal which guaranteed his player regular first team appearances, whilst at the same time asked for wages which equated to little more than a third of those paid to Ashley Young. With United’s people reluctant to agree to such a deal, Pogba’s time at United had reached its unsavoury conclusion.
Pogba’s time in the black and white stripes, of course, has been largely exhilarating. He has grown into a powerful and aggressive attacking presence, offering an impressive passing range, intricate dribbling skills and a rock-solid tackle. Quickly displacing Claudio Marchisio in Juve’s midfield, it took him little time to become a first team regular. He won Serie A in his first season, whilst his development as a world class young talent was recognised in the shape of the 2013 Golden Boy award for the best under-21 player in Europe. Last summer, he captained a France team to Under-20 World Cup glory, and is currently establishing himself as a key presence within the French national team.
Pogba’s departure and the revisionism of certain sectors of the club’s support who have attempted to justify it have become the subject of wry smiles and an almost embarrassed sense of pity by most of those in the know within world football. Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is one of them: “Pogba is one of those players who leaves you speechless,” he said in a recent interview. “Me and my teammates look at each other as to say, ‘Are they blind in Manchester?’”
Sir Alex Ferguson was indisputably one of the greatest club managers the game has ever seen. In the case of Paul Pogba, though, he appears to have made a series of regrettably poor decisions.