That first training session. Has ever a training session been so romanticised and mythologised as Paul Pogba’s first for Juventus in 2012? Is there a training session you would rather have been there to see in the flesh? “He is not real,” Giorgio Chiellini remembers thinking as they watched their new teenage magician at work. “Are they blind in Manchester?” Gigi Buffon exclaimed. “We were just laughing in total disbelief,” Andrea Pirlo later wrote. “That a player with so much obvious quality was able to leave a club the size of Manchester United for free.”
Well, you can write your own joke there. And yet as United prepare to part ways with Pogba for a second time, having spent almost £90m to buy him back, you will find very few at the club who feel even the slightest twinge of regret. “Fuck off,” the United fans roared at him as he was substituted against Norwich last week, six years of bottled frustration finally finding its voice. This will, in all likelihood, be Pogba’s epitaph at United: a profligate indulgence, an expensive failure, a player who can be safely jettisoned with the minimum of fuss.
At which point it is probably necessary to urge a little pause for reflection. Yes, this is probably for the best. No, an increasingly injury-prone 29-year-old on £200,000 a week is probably not the best man to have hanging around the place as you begin a cultural reset under a new manager. But the predominant emotion here should be not relief or vindictiveness but sadness: that English football never really saw the best of a player who really could do it all.
It all feels like hyperbole now, but it wasn’t. When Pirlo warned that “football should get ready for a new king”, or Patrick Vieira described him as “the next great French midfielder”, or Zinedine Zidane claimed he could be “one of the best players ever”, they were simply expressing what the educated eye was already telling them. Even now, there remains enormous respect for Pogba beyond these shores, particularly in Turin where he won four scudetti with Juventus who, for all their Aaron Ramsey and Weston McKennie-flavoured experiments, have never really managed to replace him.
This is not simply an exercise in nostalgia. On the contrary: if United are serious about examining where things have gone wrong for them, it’s probably worth analysing how and why they managed to squander this generational talent. Because if the answer is simply “it was his own fault” or “he wasn’t good enough”, then they are in grave danger of making exactly the same mistakes.
Even now there remains a basic misunderstanding of what Pogba was supposed to be doing at United. Even now fans and pundits complain that he didn’t “dominate” enough, didn’t take games “by the scruff of the neck”, whatever that means. Evidently that world-record fee created its own choking expectations of a midfielder who would win games on his own; Roy Keane and Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick all in one. Hey, star footballer. We buy you. Win us things. Make us big again.
Whose fault was that, really? Shortly after joining United, Ed Woodward – then a vice-chairman – gave an interview in which he complained that the club only had two names on the 25-man Ballon d’Or shortlist.
“I don’t like that,” he said. “We should be aspiring to have the best players playing for us.” And so like Ángel di María and Falcao before him, like Alexis Sánchez and Cristiano Ronaldo after him, Pogba was the right player signed for the wrong reasons: the product of a grotesque star fetish that has set United back a decade.
Future historians of United will gape at the delusions that gripped them during that era, a kind of madness, a narcissism bordering on megalomania. “The level of engagement and fervour we get is on par with the world’s major religions,” Richard Arnold, then managing director, said, and instead of being thrown out of the club for crimes against sanity he was promoted to chief executive: the sort of decision that can only really be taken by people who don’t know football, who don’t even really like it very much, except as an accessory to their own personal enrichment.
Into this void stepped Pogba, all dabs and hashtags, all cute passing triangles but nobody to triangulate them with, a plethora of mixed messages and fluctuating emotions. Commercially he was indispensable. Fans would change their opinion of him by the week. Pundits would get weirdly enraged by him for reasons they couldn’t really place: just this sense of different worlds, different energies, a force they couldn’t quite understand and so ended up criticising with statements like: “His hair looks ridiculous.”
There were strong rumours that he played computer games and owned a car. It’s a fair criticism to point out that Pogba hasn’t really improved in six years at United. But then, who has? United is where talent goes to wither, a team with billions in the bank that is heading for the Uefa Conference League, and to place the blame squarely at Pogba’s feet is a bit like turning up at the scene of an arson and arresting the lighter fluid.
Pogba rejoined United at 23 and now looks set to leave at 29. These were his best years, his footballing prime, and he gave them to a club that now actively despises him. For all this, there remains a sense of promise unfulfilled, of dreams unrealised: a departure that should be mourned, not scorned.