Long read: Being Paul Pogba – life as football's most scrutinised superstar
Back in November 2016, Manchester United’s Group Managing Director Richard Arnold gathered his notes and took to the stage at Lisbon’s Web Summit, a conference attended by 70,000 people. Arnold, Ed Woodward’s sidekick and the man behind many United sponsorship deals, values his privacy and does very little media, despite being a key decision-maker.
The seating was full for Arnold’s 20-minute slot, and he made a point of talking up the importance of social media to England’s biggest football club. Behind him, a screen buzzed with United’s key statistics: 71 million ‘likes’ on Facebook, 11 million followers on Twitter. Another 11 platforms popular in various corners of the globe were also highlighted.
United had initially been slow to embrace social media because the Glazers feared a barrage of criticism following their takeover in 2005, but they are now fully engaged and can boast of the success of campaigns such as #Pogback.
Over a giant photo of Pogba’s face, a series of graphics appeared on a screen behind Arnold. Under the heading ‘#Pogback: Record Breaking’ and ‘Revolutionary Transfer Social Media Campaign’, the United director explained how Pogba’s deal resulted in the most retweeted United post of all time, and the most read article ever to appear on United’s websites.
A graphic illustrated how #Pogback had 635,000 interactions on Instagram – “a greater number than any of United’s rival clubs’ most-popular signing”. Arnold said nothing, but a graph behind him did the talking: Luis Suarez’s move to Barcelona had 219,000, Gonzalo Higuain to Juve 145k, Bale to Madrid 112k, Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea 96k and Kevin De Bruyne to Manchester City just 56k.
The level of engagement and fervour we are getting is on a par with the world’s major religions
“Engagement isn’t a part of what we do – it’s everything we do,” said Arnold, who then unleashed a barrage of graphics to show that United are the world’s most ‘engaged’ sports club, with retweets as the indicator. Arsenal are second, Liverpool third and Chelsea fourth, with the Golden State Warriors’ basketball team fifth. Madrid and Barça are 6th and 7th, with City 9th.
“John Lennon was famously quoted as saying that The Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’,” Arnold continued. “While we wouldn’t want to be disrespectful in that way, what you are seeing from a measurement point of view is that the level of engagement and fervour we are getting is on a par with the world’s major religions, and those are the only things at the same level as United in terms of that interaction and engagement.”
And United want more of it. Arnold outlined United’s social media strategy to ‘drive engagement’ with Pogba right at the heart of it all.
What appeared next on the screen was a string of buzzwords that probably mean little to the uninitiated: “Meet fans where they are – multi-platform; entertain – storytelling; communicate – creating conversations; give reasons to return – exclusivity and shareability; localise – speak the language of fans; digestible – device centric; data – measure, analyse & optimise.”
Records reap rewards
That last word is key. For years, United struggled to monetise their vast popularity. In the past, fans in Asia mostly bought counterfeit shirts and didn’t buy match tickets. It was only when the club hit on a strategy – since copied by all of their rivals – of finding partner sponsors around the world to align their brands to one of football’s most popular football teams, that commercial success snowballed.
And to be the most popular, you need to be talked about. OK, one way is winning trophies, but another is breaking transfer records.
The crowd of techies in Lisbon applauded loudly, although the British media, few of whom had been present in Portugal, took a more cynical view and went for the clickbait-like ‘United claim they’re bigger than Jesus’ headlines.
Richard Arnold didn’t mind one bit – excellent publicity and, in Paul Pogba, he felt that United had the perfect social media partner.
“Paul is an eccentric,” says Evra. “Every day he wants to create something new. He’s a creator, not only in football but in his life, and you see that on social media.”
If he has a bad game, people criticise him for what he does on social media or his haircuts, but he won’t change. He thinks for himself and he acts for himself
But the 35-year-old defender, now playing for Marseille after leaving Juventus in January, also stresses that there’s much more to Pogba than what pops up on your smartphone.
“If he has a bad game, people criticise him for what he does on social media or his haircuts, but he won’t change. He thinks for himself and he acts for himself.
“I don’t want his image coming before his football, and although I’m not worried that will happen, I’m scared other people hope it does so they can criticise him like they did with David Beckham.”
Manchester United were the sixth-best team in England for most of 2016/17. They weren’t even playing in the Champions League, but their profile continued to soar – partly thanks to Pogba.
The £90m problem
The Pogba brand reached new heights when images of a Paul Pogba emoji started flashing around the Old Trafford electronic advertising hoardings during a Premier League encounter with Liverpool on January 15, 2017. Pogba had his initials shaved into his hair and dyed gold to mark the occasion. At the centre of the attention, he had one of his most disappointing games since his return as United drew 1-1 with their out-of-form rivals, clumsily conceding a penalty for a first-half handball.
What the Frenchman does on a football field should be what matters most, of course, and last season he was less than spectacular. Criticism started to build slowly throughout the second half of last season, albeit with plentiful caveats from pundits who don’t want to look stupid should he become the best midfielder in the world three years down the line.
This season Pogba is looking much more like the player United wanted – needed even – when they snared him last summer. The Frenchman has been one of the division’s best players of 2017/18, thanks in part to the arrival of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea.
Criticism started to build slowly throughout the second half of last season, albeit with plentiful caveats from pundits who don’t want to look stupid
Last season, Mourinho largely used Pogba as a deep-lying midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 line-up – a role to which he is ill-suited, at least according to his critics, including Jamie Carragher and Frank Lampard.
“He is nowhere near good enough or disciplined enough to be able to play in that central midfield position,” Sky Sports pundit Carragher said in March. “He’s a liability defensively. They should have lost the League Cup final [to Southampton]. Up against one of the top sides I think they would’ve lost – Pogba was one of the reasons why.”
Lampard agreed with him. “His responsibility there has to be more defensively-minded. When Mourinho plays a two in midfield, then he wants them to defend. He wants their first thought to be about security. I feel harsh criticising him because I don’t think it’s his real attribute to do that. I feel that Jose would want a holding midfielder doing that.”
The ex-Chelsea and England midfielder then let fly with a damning one-liner.
“If you spend £90m, you don’t want a £90m problem. I’m sure Jose Mourinho will solve it but at the moment he’s just not fluent.”
He is nowhere near good enough or disciplined enough to be able to play in that central midfield position. He’s a liability defensively
Yet Manchester United players see it slightly differently.
“I play deep in a three-man midfield, or even if I play as a two, whoever tends to be with me tends to be the one that goes forward a little bit more, be it Paul [Pogba], Ander [Herrera] or [Marouane] Fellaini,” explains Michael Carrick.
Lampard was one of the finest central midfielders of his generation, but by 23 he had scored 39 goals to Pogba’s 51, picked up two international caps to Pogba’s 42 and won no trophies to Pogba’s seven. Lampard’s transfer fee upon moving from West Ham United to Chelsea (£11m) in 2002 was also considered to be excessive at the time.
Clearly, Pogba is expected to get better with age. Nobody can deny, however, that he performed poorly in United’s two biggest home games of the league season, with an ill-disciplined performance in September’s Manchester derby defeat at Old Trafford prior to the no-show against Liverpool.
But his team-mates are on message. At Carrington, United’s training ground, Carrick is insistent: “Paul can control a match,” he says. “His passing is very accurate, even over long distances. He can slow the game to give his side control and he always has a strong influence over a game. Only the best can do that.”
Icon for a generation
United fans hoist a ‘Young, gifted and back’ graphic of Pogba’s head before every home game, although he is yet to become the subject of a terrace song that has truly caught on quite like Zlatan’s.
Among the 8-16 age group, shirts bearing Pogba’s name are the number one in United’s club megastore. Youngsters love his dancing, his tricks, bling and attitude.
“If social media is Paul’s vice then that’s not a problem,” says Jonny Evans, now on the books of West Brom after leaving United in 2015. “There are much worse things that other lads are going to do. The main thing is that he plays well on the pitch and there are times when he does and times when he doesn’t – but he’s still very young.”
Evra agrees with his fellow defender.
“People will criticise Paul,” he says. “They will see him put a video on Instagram and say, ‘why are you doing this? You should be practising.’ But it takes one minute to put the video up and I think he likes the rush of blood that comes with that. He puts pressure on himself, but he can handle it. He’s comfortable with sponsors, too. He must make sure they don’t interfere too much with his career.
Among the 8-16 age group, shirts bearing Pogba’s name are the number one in United’s club megastore
“I don’t think that the young version of me would have been able to deal with all of the social media and play football as well, but Paul does it really well. He’s showing his maturity.”
Social media is one area where the maturing Pogba felt wise enough to offer some advice to veteran full-back Evra, who he calls ‘Uncle Pat’. Evra is now one of the most – if not the most – entertaining footballers on the platform.
“Paul was actually the one to push me to join Instagram,” explains Evra. “I’d seen Rio [Ferdinand] with his Twitter account and the other players talking about the huge numbers of people that were following them, but it all baffled me. I had thought it was all rubbish. But then Paul told me about Instagram and I started with one or two pictures. And then I was really starting to enjoy it.”