Manchester United's French midfielder Paul Pogba reacts during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on February 12, 2022. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

By Ryan O’Hanlon and Mark Ogden

Pogba’s six seasons at Manchester United were among the most polarising in recent memory. A large and loud subsection of the commentariat have held Pogba up as a symbol for everything that’s wrong with the once-great club. Meanwhile, others see one of the most talented soccer players in the world, a domineering midfielder who’s flourished everywhere else he’s been, simply unable to overcome all the dysfunction around him. Ultimately, Pogba was supposed to be a transformative signing for United – a world-record transfer that proved that the best players in the world still wanted to play at Old Trafford and who showed that the club would be challenging for major titles once again. Instead, with Pogba at the club, United never seriously challenged for the Premier League and reached the Champions League quarter finals just once. They finished sixth in Pogba’s first season back at the club, and they’re in the exact same spot with one game left before he leaves Manchester for a second time.

Pogba was a great teammate …
There is a deep-rooted myth when it comes to Pogba’s time at Manchester United. It is that the France midfielder is a “divisive” figure, a problem player for every manager that has been charged with finding a way to make him perform as the world-class player that the club signed him to be, and that he has been a troublesome influence within the dressing room. All of the above have been reinforced by Pogba’s disappointing performances on the pitch since his £89.1m (R1,749,148,150.00) return to United from Juventus in Aug 2016 – he left United for Juventus for nothing more than £800,000 (R15,722,680.00) compensation fee four years prior to that – with the 29-year-old never quite living up to the hype that greeted his then-world record transfer back to Old Trafford. His outspoken agent, the late Mino Raiola, and Pogba’s apparently carefree, smiling persona have also damaged the player’s reputation with the club’s supporters, who grew to regard him as somebody with no real affection or commitment to the team. Fans chanted “F-off Pogba” as he walked off the pitch following April’s Old Trafford win against Norwich, and by responding with a cupped ear gesture, Pogba underlined the breakdown of his relationship with the United supporters. But let’s reel back to the Pogba myth; it’s a thread that has run through the majority of his United career and led to the present situation, with him leaving as a free agent this summer with many fans happy to see the back of him. United sources have told ESPN that within the club, the reality of Pogba could not be further from the outsiders’ perception of him being a disruptive figure. He is regarded as a leader within the squad, but a player who has time for those outside the dressing room and one who understands the responsibilities that come with playing for a club of United’s stature. On one occasion, a senior teammate refused to fulfil an obligatory pre-match interview for a broadcast rights holder, opting instead to drive away from the club’s training ground while the film crew were waiting to speak to him. On hearing of the player’s actions – and the problem it created for the club’s media team – Pogba volunteered to step in and do the interview himself, which meant one of United’s press officers didn’t have to answer to the rights-holders and his own bosses.
There have been numerous other examples of Pogba being a bridge between the squad and the club staff, with sources telling ESPN he is one of the few players prepared to directly address issues with teammates. ESPN has been told that Pogba is, and has been, a leader within the squad – largely a positive one. But while he’s well-liked at United’s Carrington training ground, there’s also an acceptance he can be blind to the kind of issues that have consistently angered supporters and some within the club hierarchy.
Pogba’s social media footprint is huge – 53.7 million followers on Instagram and 10.1 million followers on Twitter – and his commercial value has unquestionably been exploited by United during his six years at the club, with the player’s image the most prominent of any at the club in terms of major sponsors and partners. But Pogba has at times naively misused that status.
In January of 2017, he launched a Pogba Twitter emoji on the day United played Liverpool at Old Trafford, but ended up being ridiculed and accused of taking his focus off his team’s biggest game of the season after he conceded a penalty in a handball incident. (The game ended 1-1.)
Emerging with a light blue-and-white Mohawk on the day of a derby game against Manchester City in April, 2018, also led to Pogba being accused of disrespecting United by supporters – former United captain Gary Neville described it as “ridiculous” and said “he doesn’t help himself” – but Pogba silenced his critics on that occasion by scoring twice in a 3-2 win, a result that delayed City’s title celebrations.
Heading off to glamorous locations like Dubai and Miami while recovering from injuries, at the same time as posting social media images, has also worked against Pogba, so it is fair to say he has been a lightning rod for negative headlines, both for himself and the club.
Had his performances been better and more consistent, the Pogba sideshow would not have been such an issue for his detractors, but it has ultimately tarnished his reputation and impacted how his time at United will be judged. But a disruptive, malevolent force? That’s simply never been the case.

… but he was also a signing that didn’t work out
Ultimately, the Paul Pogba signing was a massive failure for United. Even if you’re the rare inhabitant of Planet Earth who doesn’t have an opinion on Pogba, you won’t have a hard time understanding why.
For starters, United already had Pogba, then let him join Juventus for free in 2012, and then had to pay a then-world-record fee of $115.5 million (R1 725 000 000.00) to bring him back in the summer of 2016. It’s not like Pogba was some no-name prospect who went to a smaller club, proved everyone including his previous club wrong and then earned a shock-move back to the big time. No, everyone knew he was the best central-midfield prospect in the world. He joined a better team than Manchester United and immediately became a key player. The business was busted from the start. So, the process of the purchase was bad – and so was the result. At Juventus, a 19-year-old Pogba played 50.6% of the Serie A minutes in his first season with the club. The following year, that leapt up to 89.7%, then down to 61.7%, and then back up to 88.3% in his last season in Turin. All in all, Pogba played a healthy 72.6% of the domestic minutes across his four seasons with Juventus. They won Serie A every year and reached the Champions League final in 2015. Still a couple of years ahead of his prime, Pogba had already become a mainstay for one of the best teams in the world. And while Pogba has been many things for Manchester United, a mainstay has not been one of them. Heading into the final weekend of the season, Pogba appeared in 59.8% of the Premier League minutes in his six seasons back at Old Trafford. The first three seasons were similar to his Juve years – 76.2, 62.9 and 88% of the minutes, in order – but he hasn’t broken 55% of the minutes in either of the past three. He finished his final season for United by appearing in 39.4 of the potential Premier League minutes. It really doesn’t matter how well Pogba played when he was on the field. Even if you’re universally considered the best player in the world, your performance won’t be worth more than a hundred million dollars if you’re only on the field half the time. Then again, the same has been true for most of the other players acquired for similar transfer fees to what United paid Juventus to acquire Pogba. Outside of Real Madrid’s move for Cristiano Ronaldo, PSG’s move for Kylian Mbappe and maybe Madrid’s acquisition of Gareth Bale, all of the other (R1.5 billion) $100-million-plus transfers were basically busts. Juventus paid $128.7m (R1.9 billion) to acquire Ronaldo with the stated intention of winning the Champions League; they didn’t come close, and they also lost Serie A for the first time in over a decade. But at least Ronaldo played; he appeared in 82% of the domestic minutes while in Italy.
Most massive transfers simply don’t work out, and most of the most expensive players ever simply don’t get on the field all that much. In fact, Pogba has played more often for United than all but one of those eight players did for their new clubs. It was bad business for United, but hey, I guess it could’ve been worse.

Was managerial or off-field chaos to blame?
Sir Alex Ferguson was the first Manchester United manager to discover that Pogba was a different kind of challenge. United had signed Pogba from French club Le Havre as a 16-year-old in July, 2009, with the teenager described as a “new Patrick Vieira” by those who had watched him develop as a youngster.
But after growing frustrated by a lack of first-team opportunities at United, Pogba and Raiola made it clear he would reject a new contract unless his progress was rewarded with time on the pitch with the senior team. Experienced teammates, including Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, attempted to convince Pogba to soften his stance and be patient, but Pogba and Raiola held firm and Ferguson stubbornly refused to concede ground. So, after just three first-team appearances, Pogba left United for Juventus at the end of his contract in 2011-12. “We had Paul under a three-year contract, and it had a one-year renewal option which we were eager to sign,” Ferguson said in 2015. “But Raiola suddenly appeared on the scene and our first meeting was a fiasco. He and I were like oil and water.”
Despite the acrimonious end to his first spell at United, Pogba was back on the club’s radar as early as 2013, with newly-appointed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward keen to re-sign the player. It took three years of nudging Raiola before a deal could be done, but when United brought Pogba back, his arrival was supposed to herald the start of a new dawn under José Mourinho, with Pogba regarded as the player who would lead the club’s revival as a side capable of challenging for honours.
Although Pogba and Mourinho enjoyed a harmonious first season together, winning the Carabao Cup and Europa League in 2016-17, the wheels began to fall off at the start of the following season.
Pogba suffered a hamstring injury against FC Basel in September, 2017, and then angered Mourinho by flying to Miami during his rehabilitation. From that point on, the pair’s relationship continued to sour. A touchline row between the two men after Pogba was substituted during a defeat at Spurs in January 2018 preceded the player being dropped for the first time. At the same time, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal impacted Pogba’s role in the team, with Mourinho playing the France international in a deeper role with more defensive responsibilities. His creativity suffered, and Pogba’s lack of defensive discipline led to more friction between player and manager. When Mourinho was fired after the defeat at Liverpool in December 2018, Pogba watched on from the substitutes bench having been dropped again.
The negativity of the pair’s relationship was then borne out by comments by both in the months and years that followed. But while Pogba and Mourinho clashed to the extent that their relationship disintegrated, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival as manager allowed the player to press the reset button at Old Trafford. Solskjaer had built a strong relationship with Pogba as reserve-team manager during the player’s early days at United and the midfielder’s form in the opening months of Solskjaer’s spell as interim boss helped earn the Norwegian a permanent contract.
But while Solskjaer and Pogba had a good relationship, Solskjaer struggled to get the best from the player with the manager never able to settle on his best position, using him both defensively and in an advanced role. Sources have told ESPN that Solskjaer was prepared to offload Pogba in 2019 in order to raise funds for new signings, but was ultimately reluctant to green light such a deal out of concern that he would be given the full proceeds to reinvest in the team. Under Solskjaer, Pogba’s career stalled.
The lack of coaching expertise under Solskjaer impacted Pogba and the whole team and, at the peak of his career, Pogba became inconsistent, injury-prone and unreliable on the pitch. The same story continued under Ralf Rangnick, Solskjaer’s interim successor at Old Trafford. Pogba made just 14 appearances under Rangnick, scoring once, with injuries once again keeping him on the sidelines for long periods. His last appearance in a United shirt saw him limp off after 10 minutes of the 4-0 defeat at Liverpool in April. In many ways, it summed up his United career – Pogba had so much more to give, but it all fizzled out far too quickly.

Putting Pogba’s move, performance in context
Although the fee United paid for Pogba has since been surpassed more than 10 times, Pogba remains the most expensive midfielder ever. Among the three outfield positions, attackers cost the most, followed by defenders and then midfielders. And among the 50 most expensive transfers of all time, only three of them occupy what you’d consider “traditional” midfield roles. Plus, one of them, Arthur, doesn’t really count because he moved to Juventus from Barcelona in a swap deal for Miralem Pjanic with a fee attached just to make the accounting work. So, you’ve got Pogba, Frenkie De Jong $94.6 million (R1.4 billion) from Ajax to Barcelona, 17th-most expensive player ever) … and that’s it. Transfer fees aren’t true stand-ins for the value clubs ascribe to players; that’d be a combination of contracts and transfer fees.
But this still serves as a rough proxy. In other words, United paid a premium for a player in what the market considers to be a non-premium position. –

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