Nearly six years after the world-record £89.3m fee, the #Pogback hashtag and Stormzy announcement, and not to mention a substantial cut for Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba’s Manchester United career is finally approaching its ugly end game. It did not have to be this way, but it has been inevitable that it would be this way for a while.
Saturday was a strange day at Old Trafford. There was the toxicity and acrimony of the anti-Glazer protests, but there was blazing sunshine and enthusiasm in equal measure. Not long after the Stretford End sang an indiscriminate “you’re not fit to wear the shirt”, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the free kick that completed his hat-trick and a 3-2 win over Norwich City.
Now just three points off fourth-place Tottenham, there is a slim, faint chance of a top-four finish again, and players who might have been booed off the pitch for surrendering a two-goal lead against opponents who are bottom of the league were instead applauded at full time. Except one, that is.
Just before Ronaldo’s winner, Pogba had been substituted. The sight of the number six flashing up on the fourth official’s board first brought loud and widespread sarcastic cheers, then loud and widespread heartfelt jeers. Finally – from a smaller section of the crowd – there came a chant of: “F*** off Pogba.”
Later, as the midfielder left the pitch at full time and headed down the players’ tunnel, he was booed again by the Stretford End. Having not reacted up to that point, Pogba responded just before he disappeared from view, cupping his right hand to his ear. A post-match Instagram post made no reference to the jeers. “Very important win for all of us today!”, it read.
In the post-match press conference, Ralf Rangnick trod a thin line between keeping the supporters onside and defending his players. “I didn’t hear it myself to be honest,” he said. “I think the fans here are amazing, I really do. The support in the stadium today was great, it could not have been any better. I can understand if the fans are frustrated and disappointed.
“I don’t think it makes sense to take on and to target any individual person or player,” Rangnick added. “It is a collective responsibility. Even if you look into the past it does not make sense. This is why I will always defend and protect my players.”
That equivocation by United’s interim manager points to the debate over Pogba that is coming down the track, and the question that will be asked over the final few weeks and months of this second Old Trafford spell: did Pogba fail at United, or was he failed by United?
Pogba will leave this summer at the end of his contract. It has been an open secret now for a while that there is no intention on the 29-year-old’s part to renew terms first agreed in 2016. Having already lost him for nothing once, United will lose him for nothing again, despite spending around £180m on his services in the meantime.
Even so, the feeling among most supporters is indifference. In the minds of many, the return on that £180m investment has not been substantial enough to warrant new terms, let alone improved ones. The perception was that Pogba would be a game changing, title-winning signing. However fair or unfair that was, it has not been the reality.
His reluctance to commit to a new deal only reinforces the long-held perception of a player who would rather be elsewhere. Ill-advised comments while on international duty have not helped. There was also the revelation, on the eve of a Manchester derby that Pogba decided in United’s favour, that Raiola had offered him to Manchester City.
But perhaps most importantly of all, Pogba has struggled to fulfil the most basic and fundamental of requirements: to be available. It’s not his fault that he has missed some 527 days through injury – practically a quarter of his six years at United – but it is a contributing factor to the sense that he has failed to meet expectations.
There is a case for the defence, though, one which fits nearly within the context of Saturday’s game. Pogba was playing in an unfamiliar position against Norwich as what Rangnick terms “a No 6” – the lone holding midfielder behind two more advanced players in a 4-3-3 – and while fasting during Ramadan. His performance was not especially bad, either.
“I think Paul in the first half in possession did well,” Rangnick said. “It is not his best position, I would rather see him as an eight, but without our defensive sixes I had to choose. We took the risk and at the end of the game in the last 20 minutes playing [Anthony] Elanga as a right back, one holding six, it was difficult to play more offensively with the players we had today.”
It was not the first time during Pogba’s United career that he has been shoehorned into a role that is not his own – he almost exclusively played in a double pivot under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, rather than a more advanced position – and it is curious that for such a major signing, no United manager has ever given the impression that they know how to use him properly.
In that respect, it is difficult to separate Pogba’s struggles at United from those of countless other major signings during the post-Ferguson era. For Pogba, read Angel di Maria, Romelu Lukaku and Memphis Depay. Given his undoubted ability, it will not be especially surprising if his name is added to the list of those who have left Old Trafford in recent years as damaged goods, only to excel elsewhere.
Even Pogba’s staunchest advocates will not be able to describe his time at United as a success once it comes to an end, and for him to be booed by his own supporters is as predictable as it is depressing. But once all is said and done this summer, it will be fair to ask whether Pogba’s failure at United can be fully separated from the club itself.
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