By Iwan Lehnert
There’s still something slightly presumptuous about writing about Paul Pogba’s move to Manchester United. It appears, for all intents and purposes that the biggest deal in the history of football is merely days away from becoming official, with too many well-sourced folk and the player’s own agent suggesting that we’re in the home stretch to making it appear unlikely that we’re all being played for fools, but until it actually happens, typing words on the Frenchman’s move feels like playing with fire. United fans have been burned before, and even when big global superstars have made the jump to Old Trafford, you need only look at the disintegration of one Angel Di Maria to be reminded of how quickly a cocktail of excitement, talent and money can make for a thoroughly botched experience, at least in the wrong environment. But with Pogba, things feel a little different.
Partially because he’s been here before. He knows United, he knows what the club is about and there are bound to be several familiar faces waiting to greet him if/when he makes his way to Carrington. The longer the notion of Pogba returning to United has been put forth as a genuine option, the more attractive and sensible the proposition as seemingly become. Here’s a star on the world stage, one of the game’s most marketable and well-known figures, and he’s tackling the challenge of joining an old club that didn’t give him a chance to flourish. The narrative fits, at least.
It’s never slipped the mind that he once wore red, mostly because it’s a fact that the club and its fans haven’t been allowed to forget. Many amorous glances have been fired his way; there’s that former highly-touted youth product, now winning scudettos, starring for Italy’s biggest side and becoming a world class midfielder whilst United have struggled so deeply in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson wilderness. But the club’s failures over the last three years feel like a key point in this deal; United are currently, even with Jose Mourinho, just a bit less than a sure bet for success. Sure, the club is better equipped to deal with a Premier League title charge than they have since Ferguson’s retirement, but they won’t be rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite this term, and we sit waiting for what could easily be the most competitive Premier League season to date, with Chelsea and a Pep Guardiola led Manchester City two of a clutch of sides vying for Leciester City’s crown. Even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even with Mourinho, even with United’s millions, there’s still uncertainty. And Pogba’s desire to return despite that should help to calm the nerves of many.
Because Pogba doesn’t have to leave Juventus. Life is peachy there; he’s guaranteed to start every game, the Bianconeri’s capture of Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain for 90m this past week suggests that he’s leaving a side exceptionally placed to dominate Italian football for the foreseeable future whilst also making good headway in the Champions League. At present, United can offer a starting berth, they are luring big players and they can offer a monolithic weekly paycheque, but their circumstances mean that they represent a challenge to whomever joins. His price tag will hardly help in that regard; analysts and tabloids will have their knives sharpened should Pogba not hit the ground running, and even before the move is concluded, the amount of ex-players and writers bemoaning the gargantuan fee that it’s taken to prise him from Juve’s hands suggests that there will be intensive pressure to perform from the get-go.
It helps, then, that we’re not dealing with an English footballing novice, or someone that doesn’t know his way around Manchester or its affluent surrounding towns. The welcome at the club should be great, and Old Trafford will likely welcome a returning son with open arms, offering the same protective blanket as it’s done so often for the club’s previously maligned figures. Just ask Cantona, Beckham or Ronaldo.
But the pressure will be ever-present. No one moves clubs for these sums of money without bringing gigantic expectations upon themselves, and Pogba’s desire to prove himself in an environment where he was never really given a fair shot will be great. How smooth the transition will be remains to be seen, given that Mourinho is still in the very early stages of shaping his latest dynasty, and with Pogba himself still 23 years old (albeit an exceptionally talented one), there’s only so much his strength, power and determination will count for if his manager can’t make the other parts of his side tick consistently.
At the risk of presenting this as an advert of the reasons why Pogba should stay put this summer, there’s still plenty of allure in making the jump back to Old Trafford beyond an astronomical weekly wage. Old friends, familiar surroundings, the chance to make an even bigger name for yourself at one of the planet’s biggest sporting institutions…….moving back to the North West is certainly far from a punishment. Sure, the player’s agent Mino Raiola has been the driving force behind this deal, with Pogba enjoying American sunshine since France’s Euro 2016 final defeat to Portugal, and had Real Madrid been far more insistent about striking a deal this summer then it’s not hard to see his destination changing to the Spanish capital instead, but a big part of Pogba himself must want this move, or it simply wouldn’t be happening.
The incredulity of it all, of United spending such a sum of money on a former player and admitting their mistake is engrossing, and the idea of adding such a talent to the current squad is ridiculously exciting. Enough to suggest that perhaps those frequent suggestions that United had ‘disrespected’ him those four years ago weren’t quite as much about rubbing his former paymaster’s collective noses in it, and perhaps pointed to a pronounced disappointment at not succeeding at a club that he cared about, that he wasn’t all that desperate to leave.
A lot’s changed since the 2011/12 season, Pogba’s last at the club. There’s no Rafael da Silva to keep him out of the line-up against Blackburn Rovers in the midst of a personnel crisis, for a start, and Ferguson may roam the occasional hall but he’s left the dugout permanently. Pogba returns as a bona fide footballing star, someone to build a team around and a player who could well flourish and improve in what is shaping up to be a hugely competitive Premier League season. But that can wait for now. With the writing seemingly on the wall regarding is move ‘back home’ to Manchester, the former Le Havre lad will (touch wood) be back on United’s books soon. Shoving the future to the side for one moment, forgetting the fee, ignoring the occasionally hint-heavy contents of his Instagram account; Paul Pogba is willing to return to Manchester United, despite his time under Ferguson and despite the challenge that awaits him. There’s no two ways about it; that’s pretty damn exciting.