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Paul Pogba and Manchester United are stuck together

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Pogba is unlikely to have many viable suitors, and United can’t afford to replace him

Manchester United v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

You know it’s the international break because Paul Pogba to Real Madrid stories are popping up again. Pogba brought this upon himself last month with his own comments but, like clockwork, as soon as Monday morning rolled around we were getting “Paul Pogba linked to Real Madrid” stories even if there was no basis for it.

It’s the international break. Media outlets need stories. Paul Pogba gets clicks. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s basically become a modern media trope these days. When in doubt, talk about Pogba. That lead to former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher to talk about him on Talksport. Carragher is a good pundit, and his comments were interesting.

“I’d be looking at myself.”

He’s not wrong. There have always been excuses for Pogba — Mourinho didn’t know how to use him, etc. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did get the best out of Pogba in 2018-19 but the current Manchester United squad isn’t equipped to play the system that Solskjaer employed in his early days.

But at the end of the day, in recent weeks Paul Pogba has simply not been good enough. His form has dropped so much that he started for France in a meaningless friendly this week, a sign that he’s not likely to start their Nations League matches. He’s not even cutting it for the national team anymore.

Pogba has always been a polarizing figure. People dislike him because he dances in his spare time, cares about his brand, and is very active on social media. For some reason fans hate that. He also never quieted down his agent who spent a summer trying to engineer a move to Real Madrid. He has only himself to blame for that.

It was always going to be hard for Pogba to be a success at United because the expectations were sky high. The £90 million price tag had fans expecting 15 goals and 15 assists from him every year, even though he’s a midfielder. People expected him to be Roy Keane against Juventus every week.

Since his arrival four years ago he has been the focus of every story week in and week out. This hasn’t affected his status in the dressing room — he’s still seen as a leader by his teammates, and the younger players look up to him — but it’s drained on the fans. It’s exhausting, and the attitude of the fans has become so dire that Pogba will never reach his true potential at Old Trafford. No matter what he does, he’ll never have the full support of the fans.

Echoing what Carragher said, the fact that four and a half years later we’re still talking about this means it’s probably time for him to leave. Even his most ardent defenders would acknowledge that, and with every bad performance more and more fans say “he should just go off to Madrid.”

There’s just one problem with that.

That’s not how this works.

Pogba may want to go to Real Madrid, but these things are a two way street. I’d like to marry Margot Robbie but I can’t just decide that, you know? The other party needs to want the same thing.

And why in the world would Real Madrid spend money on a transfer fee, agent’s fee (Mino Raiola!), wages, and a signing bonus for a 28-year-old Paul Pogba, who looks like his best days are behind him?

This isn’t your older brother’s Real Madrid. They don’t just sign every shiny object anymore. There is a lot of thought that goes into who they sign, and they have a clear strategy behind it.

Since 2013, of all the players Real Madrid have signed, a grand total of six of them have been over the age of 24. Here’s who they are.

Notice any trends here? Four of them are goalkeepers (two of them, backup goalkeepers) and another is a youth player who they signed via their buyback clause.

There is of course the one big outlier in Eden Hazard. The one exception to six years of smart signings which has worked out so (predictably) poorly that you have to think they’ve learned their lesson.

Pogba is currently producing 0.51 G+A per 90 this season. That’s not bad, it’s a goal contribution every other game, but not great for a player of his talents. If he doesn’t improve on that, why would anyone be trying to sign him? If he does improve on that, then he’s clearly finding form, in which case, why would you want to sell him?

Madrid aren’t going to pay big money for him. Neither is anyone else. Certainly not in a post-covid world. (Don’t bring up PSG, he’s not going to go there for a myriad of reasons, but also with the exception of the Neymar/Mbappé deals they are surprisingly frugal club who also typically only outlay big money on younger players).

As a Raiola client, Pogba has always been about the money. Even if United accepted a cut rate fee to move him on no one is going to offer him more money than he’s currently earning. Certainly not with all the other fees the deal would entail.

In that case, why would Pogba accept leaving? Even if he’s reduced to being an impact player off the bench he’s not going to move to a club that isn’t in the Champions League.

For United, the situation is a bit more complex. If they lose Pogba they’d need to replace him.

Donny van de Beek may be the long-term replacement for Pogba but they also signed him for depth. United need four creative players in their squad. Juan Mata has given them a bit of a revival but he’s a once-a-week player who will need to be replaced soon as well. Without Pogba, United are just one injury away from being in the same boat as they were in last year.

If Pogba goes, replacing him becomes the priority and that won’t be easy. In this market United would be lucky to get £50 million for Pogba (if they’re offered that amount of money they should take it and run). You’re more likely looking in the £20-£30m range that Tottenham got for Christian Eriksen — if that.

A replacement would obviously cost well more than that. Jack Grealish’s price tag was £80m last summer. Given his current form Villa will have every right to seek that same amount next summer if not more. Sergej Milinkovic Savic is an option, but at 26 he’d still cost a pretty penny.

The market has changed. Even in a non-covid world the £100 million deals are no longer going to the 27-28 year olds but to the 22-23 year olds. The ‘potential next’ Pogba is worth a whole lot more than the current Pogba (this is why Jadon Sancho is worth every penny of that £108 million).

Then there’s the fact that United don’t exactly have a lot of liquid capital these days. Their long term financial health will be better next summer as they’ll finally be done paying off a load of bad contracts from the Louis van Gaal/José Mourinho eras, but they’ll still be paying off the deals for Romelu Lukaku, Fred, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Add that to the fact that they’re bringing in a hell of a lot less money this year as there’s no matchday revenue coming in, and who knows when that’ll change.

United already have holes to fill next summer. They need a new defensive midfielder, they need a new center back. They’ll likely need a second striker (they still have their eyes on Erling Haaland) and they may still need a right winger. Where’s all the money for that coming from? Now you want to add replacing Pogba to the list of immediate needs?

The truth of the matter is United are probably best off holding on to Pogba for the next two years. Even if that means letting him leave for free at the end of it.

He’s not currently a first choice player for United. That’s fine. He’s having good success as a game changing option off the bench. Who cares that there’s a £90 million man on the bench; United paid £90 million for 23-year-old Pogba, not the 27-year old-version. If the current formula is working, that’s a good thing, keep doing it!

At the end of next season Pogba will be free to leave. Maybe his form improves — which would result in United being a very good team — and he’s getting great offers. Maybe it stays right where it is and his best offer is to stay at United for reduced wages in a squad player role.

Most importantly what that would do is buy United time. They’d have another year for Hannibal Mejbri to develop in the academy. They’d have another year to know if Facundo Pellestri and Amad Diallo can hack it at right wing. Most importantly they’d be able to take what money they do have next summer and address the other holes in the squad. They won’t have to divert funds to replacing Pogba and can instead make that the priority in 2022.

If Pogba is going to keep producing at the rate he currently is then he’s more than fine to be a squad player. The inconsistency will be maddening, but remember, we’re not the only ones watching him. The rest of the world is too.

If you think he’s not good enough to play for Manchester United, the rest of the top clubs probably think that too. He’s not just going to be able to magically disappear. Someone would need to want to buy him next summer, and that’s not likely to happen.

Whether they like it or not, United and Pogba are stuck together for now.