At this point, we all but know Paul Pogba will be returning to Manchester United next season. Thanks to COVID-19, Real Madrid won’t be able to afford him, and while a return to Juventus was never actually realistic, their new wage cap has removed them from even being a bargaining ploy.
The reports in recent weeks were less about Pogba wanting to stay at Old Trafford and more about him being resigned to knowing Real Madrid weren’t coming for him. I’ve always said I didn’t think Pogba wanted to leave Old Trafford so much as he just wanted to go to Real Madrid, and as such, this didn’t really bother me because he’s always acted like a professional and consistently performed on the pitch.
Then I saw this tweet.
Ole always wanted to build a team around Pogba. But Pogba had lost faith under Mou. He wanted a fresh start elsewhere. But looks like Pogba is now convinced Ole's rebuild is THAT fresh start.— ManUtdSense (@SensibleUtd) May 13, 2020
A committed Pogba could end up being Ole's best ever 'signing'. #MyManManager #mufc
At first I thought this was a massive oversimplification. But then I thought about it some more and, when you go through the timeline of the 2018-19 season, suddenly it makes a lot more sense.
Starting from the beginning of last season, unlike other World Cup participants (Jamie Vardy, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young) Pogba is ready to go from the start. He plays 84 minutes in United’s season opener, and when he leaves the match the shots are 8-7 in favor of Leicester City but the expected goals of those shots was 1.51-0.35 in favor of United. Over the last six minutes (plus stoppage time) once Pogba left, the Foxes outshot United 5-0 with an xG of 1.39-0. Quite the difference.
Pogba had a great game and was a massive presence in midfield, but after the game the sole focus was on his painfully slow run up when he took a penalty.
And that was the story of the beginning of Pogba’s season. It didn’t matter what he did on the pitch, there was always something else for the media to complain about. He’s running too slow, he’s doing this off the pitch, he’s not doing that. Anything.
With José Mourinho losing control of the team, he began to scapegoat Pogba, culminating in Mourinho reportedly calling the Frenchman a virus after a 2-2 draw with Southampton.
It’s understandable that Pogba felt like he couldn’t win. He also saw that this team was going into a deeper spiral every day and wasn’t close to winning. This wasn’t the project that was sold to him in 2016, and perhaps it was time to leave.
Then Mourinho gets fired, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes in and moves Pogba to the number 10 role, and United take off. This is the United that Pogba was sold on. This team can compete.
Then the injuries came. Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, and Ander Herrera were all out. Pogba had to drop back into deeper midfield where he put in a shift against Liverpool but of course his offensive numbers took a drop.
Not only did his numbers drop, but even though United were still pulling out wins, without Martial and Lingard — and Rashford hobbled by an ankle injury — United’s attacking numbers as a whole dropped.
As soon as Solskjaer could, he tried moving Pogba back up the pitch, but without Herrera the midfield struggled to get him the ball. That meant if Pogba wanted the ball, he’d have to come back and get it.
Suddenly this became the only way United could attack. Pogba drops deep and has to try and play Rashford through and hope he can beat the defenders.
Even when Pogba was able to do something and get himself into the box he was undone by poor teammates.
Now let’s think about the timeline. Herrera went down in February against Liverpool. Following that match United played Crystal Palace, Southampton, Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, and Wolves before heading off to an international break.
Pogba only started being linked with a move to Real Madrid when he was with the French team during that break. When he got back, United’s results weren’t improving and he keeps having to drop deeper in midfield, severely diminishing United’s attack.
At this point he can look around and say: our first XI can play with anyone, but this team is only 11 guys deep (if that — considering who that back four was). Herrera wasn’t going to be there next season and without him the midfield can’t move the ball forward (a problem we still have this season). Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez are proving to be garbage.
The word “rebuild” started getting thrown around, and you know what? That probably didn’t sit well with Pogba.
Pogba was 25, had just won the World Cup, and was entering the prime of his career. He doesn’t want to waste those years on a rebuilding project; he wants to compete for the top prizes.
Remember, Pogba never ever said he wanted to leave Old Trafford. His quote was “it might be time for a new challenge.” You can easily say that means “I want to leave” or you can say that means the challenge currently at United isn’t the challenge that I want.
He wasn’t going to be unprofessional about it, even his agent said Pogba has far too much respect for Ole to do that:
“I never spoke with Ole. So I don’t know. I only know that Paul respects him, loves him for what he has done in the past for him. And that’s it, that’s the only thing I know about Ole.”
Ole wanted to build his team around Pogba, but if you’re Pogba why in the world would you trust a rebuild that Ed Woodward is involved in? Woodward sold Pogba on being one of the final pieces to bring United back to glory three years earlier, and by August four of the eight signings he made during Pogba’s first two seasons were gone.
Fast forward a year. Whether Pogba played this season or not is irrelevant. He’s had the chance to look at the team as and assess the situation.
Without Pogba, that midfield still struggled to move the ball from defense to attack, but the defense itself was greatly improved. With him playing in a withdrawn role, the attack still suffered from a lack of a number 10.
Well guess what: with the signing of Bruno Fernandes United addressed both those problems. If Pogba plays further up the pitch, United have someone who can move the ball from the back to the front. If Pogba plays in that deeper role, United now have someone ahead of him who can facilitate the attack.
He can also look at the development of players around him. Rashford and Martial have taken massive leaps ahead of where they were last year. Mason Greenwood is progressing very nicely. Scott McTominay and Fred have improved tenfold, and while they may not still be at Herrera’s level, they’re much closer than they were.
Look at United’s cup form this year. They went to the semifinals of the League Cup and are still ticking along in the Europa League and FA Cup.
Suddenly you look at this team and say “wow, they’re not that far away.” United need some depth, but when you look at Solskjaer’s record of signing players, all of a sudden there’s a level of trust that he may get it right.
Even if they add a Jadon Sancho here and some depth there United may not be ready to vie for the Premier League title next year, but that doesn’t mean they can’t compete for two or three trophies — including the Champions League (should they qualify). Given another year of development for these players, you’re going to tell me that this team isn’t up there with Tottenham last season or Liverpool in 2018? You never know.
So now, it’s a whole different outlook for Pogba. Now, instead of dragging patched-together, unbalanced teams to relevancy like he has the last few years, he has the chance to do something more — to lead Manchester United back to glory. To get one of the biggest clubs in the world back to the summit and to be the face of it all. In other words, what he was promised when he first signed.
Pogba no longer has to be resigned to the fact that his immediate future is at United. Suddenly, that challenge that he was seeking last summer is right before his eyes.
And who’s to say he’s not excited to take it?
P.S.: He’s still going to want money so there’s still going to be some ugly contract negotiations along the way. This is the way.