Andy Mitten column: Paul Pogba may be inconsistent, but Manchester United really need him to stay
What would you do with Paul Pogba if you were Manchester United? The Frenchman has long wanted to leave the club, but United have no inclination to sell him. Added to that, there’s a shortage of suitors who’d come close to the kind of transfer fee that United would even consider and the wages that Pogba would demand.
PSG need to comply with Financial Fair Play. Barcelona need to cut costs. Real Madrid don’t have the money – and the Madrid-friendly press are pushing the case for Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde, 21, who has impressed with an all-round attacking midfield performances. The clamour for Pogba has quietened, but will Valverde even get in Madrid's side when Luka Modric is fully fit or Casemiro is available? It’s a pleasant problem for Zinedine Zidane to have.
United have no such luxury. The midfield is the weakest part of their squad, and a great concern.
And for every ‘if he doesn’t want to be here then get rid’ from United fans, and even people on the football side within the club, it’s not quite so simple.
Pogba is United’s most talented player. He’s the midfielder who can pick a pass from deep, he can drive and making surging runs later in the game. As Romelu Lukaku, who was a mate of Pogba's (at least when he joined United), said of the Frenchman's ability, vision and the way he commands the game: “I’m skilful but with his skill he can get out of tight spaces, and if I could have that then I could score 10 to 15 goals more.”
The other players simply can’t get out of those spaces like Pogba can. Pogba scores and assists. He was the club’s top scorer last season; his goals boosted by the penalties he didn’t miss. On his day he can be the playmaker who justifies becoming the most expensive player on the planet when he signed from Juventus in 2016.
Pogba wants to play further forward and wanted to be United’s captain too, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has deployed him more defensively this season, since he’s the one trusted to receive the ball in tricky positions in front of his own box and get out of it with the ball.
Fred is not impressing. Nemanja Matic isn’t as effective as he was. Scott McTominay is inexperienced and nowhere near Pogba’s talent level. Pogba’s got the energy to get forward, too.
Pogba can also frustrate like no other player because he’s not consistent enough, and aggravates fans when he doesn't track back. He was bought to stand out and be the difference against the best, as he was against Manchester City in the 3-2 win in 2018, but he looked as average as the rest against third-tier Rochdale in United’s recent 1-1 draw. His relationship with Jose Mourinho deteriorated.
Pogba’s not blameless here, but he’s in a mediocre team. He’d be better with better players around him; he’d also probably be better in a more advanced role. What else? The 26-year-old doesn’t really do injury, despite being sidelined recently. The United fans arguing their case for Ander Herrera last season didn’t tally with the club’s view when faced with the Spaniard’s vast wage demands; he was starting 25 games a season while Pogba was starting 45.
Pogba also has a strong influence in the dressing room, especially with Marcus Rashford looking up to him. As does Anthony Martial, another hugely talented player from the banlieues of Paris. It’s better to have both happy rather than unhappy.
Hannibal Mejbri, a superb 16-year-old who United have just signed for £9.3 million from Monaco, is another who looks up to Pogba – the man who showed that you can go kicking a ball on the sink estates to winning the World Cup.
Like Pogba, Martial also wanted to leave a year ago but United refused to sell him. He knuckled down, got a new contract and then, like the rest, finished last season poorly. Martial is a top finisher: the team need him right now, but he’s missed the last eight games with a hamstring injury, after scoring in the first two games this season and assisting in the third. Oh, for him coming back on Sunday and making the kind of impact he did when he first played against Liverpool at Old Trafford in 2015.
Then, Liverpool were nobodies. Now, they’re the European champions and top of the league they last won in the pre-internet age, with a 100% record. They’re feeling as confident as they’ve ever been before coming to Old Trafford.
They’ll be less confident if they see that Pogba has come back from an ankle injury. There are also fitness doubts about David de Gea, United’s only other player who fits the world-class billing, after he went off for Spain in Sweden on Tuesday.
United’s injuries haven't helped, but nor has poor recruitment in the last six years. Both are contributory factors to why England’s most decorated domestic team sits in 12th right now, though the three players who arrived in the summer look more promising and more of the same is supposedly on the way.
Will Pogba, who is contracted until 2021 with an option for a further year, stick around to help the new boys?
Critics state that he’s not as committed as past United midfield legends. You never heard Roy Keane or Bryan Robson inviting transfer speculation as Pogba does. Not publicly, no. But then they were living in a different era, without 24/7 scrutiny.
Pogba’s professional. He’s not a drinker, gambler or womaniser. He’s friendly, multi-lingual and trains with the best of them. He can be a great asset to United, but there have been false dawns before. Like Jose Mourinho, fans hoped he’d strike a fruitful partnership with Lukaku, two youngish and huge talents. It didn’t really happen.
Lukaku went, Pogba remains. United need him to stay and get the best out of him.
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