Paul Pogba: A legacy of “if only…”

Not often has a player who has been dubbed the solution to the unenviable problem that is Manchester United has come in and been exactly that, a problem. No matter what you think about Paul Pogba it’s undeniable that his 226 appearances has been strewn with controversy and melodrama after melodrama.

The theatrics and behaviour off the field has been a constant shadow which has problematically loomed large over his 6-foot 2 inches frame, whilst he has strutted his stuff over the immaculate Old Trafford Turf.

With 39 goals and 51 assists, which averages out at 1 goal contribution every 2-3 games, you might think that the Frenchman has been an unmitigated success, a World Cup winner who arguably was one of the driving forces behind United’s last trophy haul back in 2017.

That has been far from the full story. Since that emotionally charged evening in Stockholm, he and indeed United have felt like they are both in a state of flux, a tailspin, a difference in sporting targets – any brutal adjective works here, but one thing is for sure, neither party knows what the future holds.

I am delighted to re-join [Manchester] United,” Pogba said with adulation in his voice, in the wake of the £89 million move confirmed in August of 2016. “It has always been a club with a special place in my heart and I am really looking forward to working with Jose Mourinho.”

There’s a lot to unpack from those 24 words uttered by the Frenchman, his admiration and clear excitement of working with Jose Mourinho, looking back now – the move seemed perfect for everyone. United were in a rebuild but this time with serial winner Mourinho at the helm, off the back of his last title win but also his messy sacking from Chelsea. Bundesliga magician Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the iconic Zlatan Ibrahimovic and exciting defender from Villarreal Eric Bailly were in the building – United meant business.

To add the cherry on top of an already delicious cake was not only appealing to United’s fans but indeed United’s stakeholders who saw the value behind the then 23-year-olds impending arrival. The social media following must have sent United’s decision makers into a frenzy, a player with incredible ability but also one-of-a-kind marketability. The announcement video with rapper Stormzy really highlighted the midfielder’s appeal away from the pitch.

For the first 12-18 months, life at Old Trafford was blossoming for the Frenchman, a slow start albeit that may have been down to his lack of pre-season training, but a Carabao Cup and a UEFA Europa League win, as well as 15 goal contributions in 51 appearances in all competitions. It’s hard to argue against the opinion that his first season back in English football was an emphatic success.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN – MAY 24: Paul Pogba of Manchester United with the trophy during the UEFA Europa League Final between Ajax and Manchester United at Friends Arena on May 24, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Getty Images)

The second season, which again had bags of promise, may well have turned out to be the sliding doors moment, not only for his United career but indeed Jose Mourinho’s ill fated United career. It once again started well – Romelu Lukaku who was great friends with Pogba at the time was brought in thanks in part to the tireless effort of controversial super-agent Mino Raiola, but also to the Frenchman’s words of wisdom.

It looked for all the world that Pogba was going to be joined by his French colleague Antoine Griezmann who lit up Euro 2016 and his phone celebration may well have got United to the phone, to secure his services. An 11th hour change of heart and an upholding of a FIFA transfer ban for Atletico Madrid made the deal fall through, so the gaze of Pogba and United firmly switched to the Belgian Lukaku.

United’s start to the season seemed to really show their intent to become kings of England once again, more importantly Pogba looked well up for the fight. A full summer of pre-season training behind him, the Frenchman bolted out of the starting gates of the new season, with a renewed vigour and intensity.

A prolonged bout on the side-line seemed to ruffle Jose Mourinho’s feathers however, when the midfielder suffered a hamstring injury against FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League group stage, he didn’t return until 8 weeks after the injury, much to Mourinho’s apparent ire.

Following this a heated exchange of opinions followed during United’s drab 2-0 defeat against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham side, which again seemed to add to the simmering tension building between the two parties.

Following the game against Spurs, Pogba was subsequently dropped for the game against Huddersfield Town.

This then culminated in the summer of 2018, which again may well be the point where relations between club and player fractured beyond repair. The relationship was never the same after that, the war of words to the media began from this point on.

Reports of the rift was rife, with rumours of the breakdown of the relationship splashed across the national newspapers, the relationship truth be told, never recovered.

The war of words escalated to the 2018 World Cup, with the question about the Frenchman’s form prompting Mourinho to slam the midfielder saying the short nature of the tournament, ensured the midfielder wouldn’t have any external distractions.

Pogba has fluttered his eyelashes at Real Madrid, PSG, Manchester City and even former club Juventus. There have been sprinklings of brilliance, times where the ball would be glued to his feet as he sauntered across the turf with the arrogance and confidence that his price tag demanded.

Ultimately though the moments of magic have been fleeting at best, his off-field behaviour has warranted criticism and he has received a fair whack of critical analysis of his 6 years at the club.

The culmination of this led to Mino Raiola publicly revealing that Pogba wanted to leave, in the build up to a decisive Champions League match against RB Leipzig.

Following this revelation, it could be argued that his best months in a United shirt came after this, with Pogba driving United to the summit of the Premier League, although the wheels quickly fell off that escapade.

The signing was greeted with such fanfare and excitement, it seemed it couldn’t fail but, arguably, it did exactly that. Pogba leaves behind a legacy of “if only…” instead of a legacy of success. The transfer fee, the extravagant hairstyles, the social media persona, the smooth passer, smooth dribbler and the smooth World Cup winner will leave United with a murky reputation.

Cupping his ears to the home fans, you’d expect to hear a chorus of gratitude and appreciation, instead he was greeted with a round of boos and unflattering V-signs (I’ll let you work that out for yourself).

The United away fans who are usually so staunch in their support towards their players, but when Pogba was substituted at Anfield, the crowd were unmoved almost lifeless – the relationship between match-going fans and the player has never been very strong.

Rumours of a move to City were quickly shot down, but the lack of anger towards the rumours was a sign of apathy towards the midfielder, towards the season and towards the club. A large swathe of supporters has been supportive of the idea of the midfielder being allowed to leave for nothing, for a second time.

With one game remaining of the season, and Pogba’s season for United over, these last six years have been a largely unforgettable era for him and United, there have been wrongs on both sides. United have patently failed to match his ambitions, but at the same time Pogba has undoubtedly been unable to repay the club’s faith in him.

It’s a twisted, convoluted relationship which has become untenable. The best solution for both parties is to part ways, with a handshake and an acceptance that the promise and hysteria the midfielder brought, despite periods of brilliance, has not worked out at all, for anyone.

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