He returned in a blaze of social media publicity and leaves with a Europa League medal, a League Cup win and billions of column inches asking what became of the man who was meant to be the centrepiece of a Manchester United regeneration.
Six years on from #POGBACK, United confirmed on Wednesday that Paul Pogba will leave the club at the end of June after a six-year spell which will have both sides harbouring regrets.
But while many had made their minds up on what a catastrophe the Pogba signing was years ago, the Frenchman himself will feel every bit as let down by United as the club’s fans have been by him since his return in 2016.
When he signed the deal which ended his spell at Juventus, he did so calling Old Trafford “home”. He believed he was arriving at a club ready to shake off its three-year funk and return to the winners’ circle with regularity. He thought that a manager who pursued him as fiercely as Jose Mourinho had would have a great plan in mind to harness his greatest qualities.
Here was a player at the top of his game, a four-time champion in four years at Juventus who had taken gametime away from local favourite Claudio Marchisio to form one of the great midfield trios in European football alongside Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. He had done so in a system which allowed him to exploit space between opponents’ defensive and midfield lines to deliver explosive finishes from deep and tee up a flourishing forward line.
What he actually found in M16 was a basket case of a club wrestling with its place in the world post-Sir Alex Ferguson and a starting position which blatantly didn’t suit him. Too often he was tied to the base of a defensive midfield setup which asked him to start 20 yards deeper than the position from which he had made his name at Juventus.
Aside from a brief run under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the Norwegian had come in as interim manager in 2018-19, Pogba rarely got the opportunity to play on the left of a midfield three. In the first 11 games of the Solskjaer era, Pogba scored eight goals and assisted six more, with United winning nine and drawing two in that time.
But that was about the extent of it. He would get other chances to play in a three, but the arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting CP put an end to any hope Pogba had of being used to his full potential as Solskjaer tried to squeeze an extra attacker in to suit the Portuguese. The Frenchman even ended up playing on the left wing for much of 2020-21 as Solskjaer scrambled for a way to get him further up the field without switching the formation back. Pogba's former United teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic once told Pep Guardiola: "You bought a Ferrari but you drive it like a Fiat," after getting frustrated at his utilisation at Barcelona, and the Le Havre product could claim similar of his predicament at United.
Even when he won the World Cup with France playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, his deployment from the base of midfield was more fluid. Didier Deschamps gave him the licence to advance from deep with less in the way of defensive responsibility thanks to the presence of the wonderful N’Golo Kante alongside him. If only United had signed anyone of that kind of quality in the last six years, they may have found the key to their Pogba quandary.
As it is, they never quite got it right with him, just as he never quite got it right with them. Some pundits will feel entirely justified in having claimed all along that Pogba wasn’t worth the £89.5 million they paid way back when, but that would be to fudge the story.
The move just didn’t work. The way the club has been run has meant they haven’t harnessed the talent of a wonderful football player, but then the same could have been said in the cases of Angel di Maria, Alexis Sanchez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Romelu Lukaku and more over the last decade.
At what point it becomes about the common demoninator – the club – and not about the raft of players is open to question. But what cannot be denied is that Paul Pogba’s return to Manchester United didn’t work out for anyone involved.
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