“It must be the law of diminishing returns” – Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
The mystery of Paul Pogba and his underwhelming Manchester United career that has ended after six years might puzzle a super-sleuth brains trust of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Ironside and Columbo.
The Frenchman was the £93.2m (then) British record signing billed as a coup for United when he joined in summer 2016. The richly talented footballer who landed as a four-times Serie A-winner and Champions League finalist with Juventus and a Euro 2016 runner-up with France. He was two years from World Cup glory, scoring a superb left-foot strike in the 4-2 final triumph over Croatia, footage later emerging of a rousing pre-final team talk that cast him as a bona fide leader.
For United, there were only flashes of this glitter and stardust. His acquisition proved the coup that never was. Pogba certainly did not bomb but he failed to dazzle consistently like, say, Kevin De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva for Manchester City.
In a flatlining post-Sir Alex Ferguson era United were desperate for a totem footballer who might single-handedly yank teammates up to the level required. The expectation was close to ridiculous: as if Pogba could be a quasi-Diego Maradona figure who, as the Argentinian did for Napoli from 1984-1991, would transform United into a serial champion outfit.
Instead, the reverse occurred. The more Pogba was viewed as the savior the more he seemed to disappoint. It was the law of diminishing returns. United were shambles on and off the field. Pogba’s performance graph flickered upward only occasionally. Why? Because he was surrounded by mediocrity. In his first Premier League campaign, a fellow midfielder was the 32-year-old Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose peak was long gone and who would be banished to the reserves by José Mourinho. Another, Morgan Schneiderlin, would be granted three league substitute appearances by the manager. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 34 but he did contribute 17 league goals. The next highest: Juan Mata with six and then Pogba, joint third, on a paltry five.
Was it his job to score more? Was he an attack-breaker? To scheme? A box-to-box dynamo? A silky-smooth ruthless assassin a la Silva or Silva’s namesake David, who also graced City’s title-winning XIs?
No one in a United dugout seemed to know. North did fans and pundits. For this observer he was an X-factor act, and the killer irony of Pogba’s exit is that it occurs just when Erik ten Hag enters seeking to add precisely the alpha player that Pogba can be at his best.
Ten Hag’s searing priority is to elevate the midfield – and the team. Place Pogba in City’s side and he would have De Bruyne, Silva, Rodri, Phil Foden, Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias et al alongside and there would be less focus on him, and he would shine more. If Pogba were leaving any other club and available on a free Ten Hag would ask United’s football director, John Murtough, to place the 29-year-old on his shortlist alongside the Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong.
Except, no. United have been there, done that. Pogba leaves as a busted flush – according to an unwavering constituency of experts, supporters and social media warriors whose extreme criticism of him illuminates their inability to grasp the nuance of why he ‘failed’.
Pogba became the undeserving poster boy for a farcically mismanaged club that did not go close to adding to a record 20 league titles after his arrival or in the three seasons before. Pogba was supposed to end this; but this was always a pipe dream. Instead, Pogba was malignant, seemingly for sporting a range of different-coloured haircuts and offering an endearing perma-smile.
It is true, he did not dominate midfield or kill opponents from the wide left or No 10 berths he was fielded in by Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ralf Rangnick: three managers who believed he could do so and were disappointed.
When Rangnick took over last November Pogba was injured and he would be out until early February. With the player running down his contract and unwilling to sign a new one Rangnick was dismissive. “I wouldn’t say he’s not worth keeping,” he said. “But players have to want to play for a big club like Manchester United.”
Left out here is the subtext. Pogba came to view United as no longer a “big club” that could win the title or any trophy – the last had been the 2017 Europa League, in which Pogba scored in the final. Rangnick’s stance came in December. By February his tone had about-turned – perhaps he was bewitched by how much better Pogba was than the rest of the squad in training. The interim manager sounded awed at what Pogba might contribute. “I’ll be excited to see how Paul is doing,” he said. “He can show me and the team and the fans and everyone in England what high level he can play.”
It never occurred. The strike against Ajax in the 2-0 Europa League final victory was a highlight. As was selected in the 2018-19 Professional Footballers’ Association team of the year (Pogba scored 13 times – a division-high for a midfielder): he was the only footballer not of City, the title winners, or Liverpool, who finished second , voted by his peers for inclusion.
On Instagram on Wednesday Pogba said: “I feel privileged to have played for this club. Many beautiful moments and memories but most importantly an unconditional support from the fans. Thank you.”
“Unconditional” was surely a snipe back at those who constantly harangued him. Pogba leaves as he arrived: a supremely classy footballer in search of a side to match.