For 35 minutes at Watford, there was a glimpse of what Paul Pogba can bring to Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team had been hopeless, and especially in defence, but Pogba’s arrival as a substitute altered a previously blunt attack into a genuine threat. No goals came but here appeared an antidote to United’s severe lack of creativity in any situation beyond the wildcat counterattacks from which they remain fearsome. And he showed similar qualities on Boxing Day against Newcastle after coming on for the stricken Scott McTominay.
Now, both players are denied to Solskjaer, with McTominay out for a few months with a knee injury and Pogba set for an operation, the providence of which is a matter of some dispute. After New Year’s Day’s horrendous display at Arsenal, Solskjaer spent post-match delivering the bad news on the Scot who has been United’s most improved player this season and the Frenchman who has been, for much of the season, ghosting the club who paid £89.9m for him. The spectre of Pogba hovers over United and the club’s manager throughout this campaign but he has been little use to them.
Pogba’s people, said Solskjaer, decided his foot problem required an operation which will keep him out for the rest of the month, by coincidence the same month as the winter transfer window. It was a move which appeared to suggest the Norwegian, the ultimate Manchester United man, has had his fill of Pogba dictating his own terms. But then came an intervention from the club’s press department, stating that United’s medical team had also been in on the decision. It left Solskjaer exposed, the latest casualty of a club unable to get its story straight and a player’s own back office that has given up on United.
It was the latest indication of the tail wagging the dog, with the tail being Pogba plus his redoubtable agent Mino Raiola, who again by sheer coincidence had been saying in recent days that his client deserved and needed to be playing for a Champions League team. “I wouldn’t bring anyone there now,” said the former pizza waiter of United. “They’d also ruin Maradona, Pele and Maldini. Paul needs a team and club like the Juventus team he played in.”
This followed United’s coming a distant second in the race for Erling Haaland’s signature to Borussia Dortmund, and some well-placed stories about the financial package that Raiola and the player’s father would share from any future sale of the Norwegian striker. In this battle, both sides are spinning but United are now being mocked, having the piss taken out of them.
There is now little love being lost between the club and the man Sir Alex Ferguson infamously labelled “a twat”. Having failed last summer to spring from Pogba from his £15m a season prison, a charmless offensive is being mounted. Pogba’s injuries may well have been franked by United’s medical department but few players in the club’s history can have completed their rehabilitation at the same time as a world tour of desirable destinations.
And Solskjaer, someone who played on for United despite a debilitating knee injury until he could play no longer, is left bemused on the sidelines as someone he backed from the start of his tenure as caretaker shows rather less than total commitment. If the strategy was aimed at getting Solskjaer to wash his hands of Pogba, then it appears to have worked. That Emirates post-match admission was a throwing up of the hands from a Manchester United supporter realising that a player, no matter his talent, was not worth the bother any more.
Pogba – or more properly Raiola – does not appear to care about any legacy at Manchester United, the club to which he returned ‘home’ after previously doing a flit to Juventus in 2012 when still a teenager. And there appear to be – at 26 going on 27, usually a key stage in a player’s career – few misgivings over what appears likely to be a season taken as a sabbatical. All the while United’s resolve is being loosened to the point that they will cash in a faded asset for the type of lower premium that may be attractive to clubs who had previously been priced out.
Wherever his next destination, Pogba is likely to go down in United history as another symbol of the club’s fall from grace, a luxury player in a time of on-field austerity, someone who rarely pulled the rest of the team along with him in the manner of the midfield greats of Solskjaer’s playing era.
And he has never won the affections as those players once did.
His Instagram antics and multiple other social media japes have not won the favour of the match-goers, even though they might be good for business with sponsors and a global audience. Admittedly, many of those fans will be supporters not au fait with the way a young, gifted, black and French man chooses to spend his downtime, and at least Pogba is not spending long nights down the pub, but a culture gap between fans and player was there even before he began looking elsewhere to ply his trade.
It is closing on seven years since the departure of Ferguson removed the club of its direction and Pogba has become one of those who have failed to step into the breach, alongside managers like David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and regrettably, Solskjaer during this lacklustre season.
The suggestion will always be that Pogba used United as a stopping point in his career with the £41.4m that Raiola took from United and Juventus from his transfer being the driver for the deal rather than any sense of ambition to become United’s main main. It has often seemed like he gets his kicks from being anywhere but Manchester; he won the World Cup with France the summer after he ended the 2017-18 season booed by fans during United’s lap of appreciation.
Pogba is a player with limitless gifts, skill to match his height and power, a passing vision beyond the ken of anyone at the club, someone who has the talent to free players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Mason Greenwood. He may not quite be Maradona, Pele or Maldini but he had a chance to be a dynasty player at United in the style of his NBA heroes.
But when the time comes, either in January or this summer, the accusation must be that has not taken Manchester United nearly seriously enough.