Why does everybody have it in for Paul Pogba?
It was strange, but still the right thing to do.
Jose Mourinho bit down on his own sense of injustice following Manchester United's FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Chelsea, choosing instead to mount a public, effusive and slightly contrived defence of Paul Pogba, his ailing midfielder. Mourinho played fast and loose with the hyperbole, to the point of parody, but he was still picking his words wisely. Pogba needed a show of faith.
Game after game, the world's most expensive footballer continues to labour. Neat touches come in two and threes, offering a quick glint of the exorbitant ability he inarguably possesses, but there remains little impact at the point of delivery. United themselves are a stuttering, semi-functional side, but Pogba's personal malaise seems to have come at the cost of his easy charm.
At his most radiant he exudes a cool, infectious charisma but now, having endured seven months of erosive judgement, the light in his eyes has dulled and his expression has drooped to a perma-frown.
There's an atmosphere around Pogba. Hatred is too strong a word, but there's certainly an appetite for his failure. The usual jealousies that are focused on young, wealthy players are as apparent as ever, but to see him purely as a victim of envy is probably to miss the wider context; there's something else at work.
Pogba rejoined United at a strange time in their history. They remain on an unprecedented hiatus from the Champions League and are no longer a season-to-season contender domestically, yet they retain all the trappings of decadent success. While not necessarily progressive on the field they are, for the second time in three decades, at the vanguard of professional football's financial evolution.
Every aspect of Old Trafford life seems now to have a cash value and the club's football performance has had no discernible impact on their commercial appeal.
There's an atmosphere around Pogba. Hatred is too strong a word, but there's certainly an appetite for his failure
That's been a great disappointment to rival supporters. Call it petty, but it's true. Those whose earliest footballing memories date back to the early 1990s have never known United to be anything other than a colossus and were forced to console themselves with the assumption that, eventually, the cycle of Alex Ferguson's success would come to an end and the club would fall back into the chasing pack.
That hasn't happened. Ferguson retired, but United were large enough to survive the infrastructural and personnel fractures created by his departure. On the field, the may look like a pale imitation of what they once where, but away from it they remain Manchester United, the biggest club in the world.
That has created a great deal of resentment and Pogba's transfer, through no fault of his own, has stirred that beligerance.
POGBA IN 2016/17
- Appearances: 40 (39 starts)
- Goals: 7
- Assists: 5
- Passing accuracy: 83.7% (PL and EL only)
- Key passes pg: 1.9 (PL and EL only)
An uneven game
One of the great fallacies of modern football is that elite, expensive players are a reward for steady progress. Players of Pogba's class and vape are supposed to be a perk which comes with winning league titles or qualifying for major European competitions. But that's no longer true. Those players are in fact reserved for certain teams; they are the luxury items sold in appointment-only boutiques.
That's a grandiose way of saying that football is no longer fair. Pogba, essentially, is the emblem of United's never-ending, never-diminishing advantage and he now serves as a reminder that the meritocracy, if it ever existed, is long gone. For years, lesser clubs have been losing players on the basis that they couldn't offer Champions League football or regular title challenges.
Yet, now that United find themselves in that position – albeit probably briefly – the rules have changed.
While the world laughs at its Middle-Eastern beef partnerships and Central American potato snack hook-ups, those inside the club are too busy cashing cheques and implementing activation strategies to care
Instead of losing their best players, they're able to sign the finest young midfielder on the planet for the biggest fee in football's history.
Around that galling reality also exists the contemporary game's grating imperatives. Marketing is important, an essential part of the arms race, and no club understands that better than United. While the world laughs at its Middle-Eastern beef partnerships and Central American potato snack hook-ups, those inside the club are too busy cashing cheques and implementing activation strategies to care.
The more the revenue grows, the more hollow that mirth becomes; social media can have all the fun it wants with those cringeworthy, adapted film trailers, but the club's profit margin always guarantees it the last laugh.
Pogba, as a magnetic athlete of unquantifiable commercial worth, has been a natural asset. However, through no fault of his own he has effectively become a symbol of football's focus on finance. It may not amount to a legitimate reason for resenting a player, but it provides an excuse – and, sadly, in most cases that's enough to dictate the mood. In that sense, he's a victim of his times. A thoroughly modern midfielder perfectly equipped to excel within this generation, certainly, but also – curiously – in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The game is shifting its shape and has long since been prioritising factors beyond the pitch, but that has never been more obvious than it is now.
Although reductive and facile, supporters likely saw Pogba's re-entry into English football as a form of corporate boasting
Consequently, it has never been more difficult to be a big-budget United signing. When his move from Juventus was completed, it was celebrated with a Hollywood vulgarity which some will have found antagonistic. The money that changed hands may have made that essential, but the average fan doesn't necessarily process the game in that way. Although reductive and facile, they likely saw Pogba's re-entry into English football as a form of corporate boasting.
So of course they were going to celebrate even his mildest failures.