It’s the eternal question that circles around Manchester United: how do you get the best out of Paul Pogba? Four years on from re-joining Manchester United for what was then a world-record transfer fee, Pogba looks to be on thin ice.
The midfielder has it all in terms of his playing capabilities and genetic make-up, but for whatever reason it’s just not clicked in the way that he, or Manchester United, would have foreseen.
The Red Devils invested a huge sum of money in the summer of 2016 to acquire the France international’s services from Juventus, in what was supposed to have been a rejuvenation for Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Alongside Pogba came other star-studded names like Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alexis Sánchez, Nemanja Matić and Romelu Lukaku. However, only Pogba and Matić remain at the club — a damning indictment of United’s transfer dealings since Ferguson and David Gill departed in 2013.
There’s no doubt Pogba is, on his day, a world-class player. A midfielder who can do it all up and down the pitch, controlling those around him along with the tempo of games. But those games have come few and far between, and he often disappoints supporters with his performances, leaving them longing for more.
Whether Manchester United were lining up under José Mourinho or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the outcome has usually been the same for Pogba. The sense of nostalgia from playing alongside Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio in Turin is clouding the judgement of some spectators, as they blissfully pretend Pogba was this all-encompassing Football Man at Juve.
Of course, there have been fleeting moments of supreme quality from Pogba in the red of United, but not enough to sustain half a season, let alone a full one.
The rhetoric around him has always been ‘Man United need X midfielder to accompany Pogba’, or ‘Pogba’s not playing in his preferred position’, but some days he’s simply been lackadaisical, both in defence and attack, and, quite frankly, a liability.
A top class midfielder will take any game by the scruff of its neck and perform — Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Yaya Touré made careers from it. There was rarely a game that went by without one of those three stamping their authority on it. Bruno Fernandes looks to be cut from the same cloth, but it’s still too early to put him in that elite bracket.
And so, it appears Solskjaer is approaching the end of his tether with Pogba, who has started on the bench in four of the last five games throughout all competitions.
United’s manager has instead opted for his preferred duo of Scott McTominay and Fred in a two-man pivot, with Bruno Fernandes ahead of them in the number 10 role, while also having the ability of Matić in reserve to call upon when needed.
McTominay and Fred might not provide the same creative spark Pogba is capable of, but they do at least offer a steely presence and a non-stop working attitude that Solskjaer clearly leans towards, which allows Fernandes to patrol the lines and play on the front foot.
With two years remaining on Pogba’s current contract, Manchester United may be in a healthier position all round if they sell him at the end of this season and reinvest the money into another central midfielder.
They’re unlikely to receive the amount they initially paid for the Frenchman, but £30-40 million would still mark a positive reimbursement, if the strategy is to not extend his contract.
Given Pogba can sign a pre-contract elsewhere in January 2022 and leave on a free the following summer, the Red Devils must act sensibly in 2021 should they attempt to offload their troubling virtuoso.
There are other players in Europe that can do a similar job to Pogba, and while perhaps none can reach his heights when he’s ultimately at his best, the sacrifices needed to make him a regular feature in the starting XI no longer appear to be a viable option.