Is there room on Solskjær’s new project for the Frenchman, or is his time in Manchester over?
Feature Image by Jakub Mularski from Pixabay
Merely the mention of his name could make Graeme Souness incensed. The French midfielder is firmly in the prime of his career, with a World Cup winner’s medal to his name and, when fit, is among the best and most technically gifted midfielders in world football. He has been a star at times, but inconsistent at others, during his four years in Manchester. His transfer fee, while probably low by today’s inflated standards, made him a lightning rod for criticism from all different media outlets throughout England, and despite his clear talent and the highs of his time with United, many consider his transfer a failure.
United have seemingly found themselves at a crossroads. Ole Gunnar Solskjær will seemingly be given more time to continue his rebuild, as his team’s uptick in form following Christmas has given him some leeway with the board and the fans. Any success this season has come without Pogba, as he has missed the majority of the season due to injury. The transfer speculation continues to circle, and his contract is winding down. With the rebuilding path United are currently on, they find themselves staring directly at a massive, immovable question:
is it time to sell Paul Pogba?
Now, this is a very difficult decision. Pogba, despite his critics and despite his inconsistencies, is still an immensely talented footballer that would make basically any team in the world better. His past labels of being a “luxury player” are quite inane and ignore the peaks he has had while playing for largely average-at-best Man United teams. While he has been inconsistent at times, and his flirtations with Real Madrid and Juventus in the past have not helped his case either, United’s struggles during Pogba’s time are not fully down to him, despite what some people may have you believe. The blame for United’s struggles can be pinned as much on management as on any player. Jose Mourinho’s turbulent tenure as manager, as well as the decisions of club executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, did not leave United in a very good state going into this season.
Despite the vultures circling around Ole Gunnar Solskjær for the last year and a half, he has seemingly figured something out. United are still rebuilding, yes, but this team has promise. The signings they have made in the last year, including Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, have melded in well and created a team that is starting to click. Things are not completely rosy for the Norwegian, but you can see the vision and idea of what they are working toward, and this was mostly done without Pogba. With Pogba returning to the team from injury, he can slot into a three man midfield in a 4-3-3 without major issue. While fitting him and Fernandes into the same midfield could have some growing pains and need an adjustment in understanding of role for both players, the potential of that midfield is staggering. Pogba and Fernandes are both dynamic, attacking-minded midfielders, able to function as an 8 or a 10. Both are very good on the ball, have an eye for a pass, and are a goalscoring threat. Both could play well alongside an attack including Marcus Rashford and United’s rumored striker signing. When on form, a United midfield including those two would be among the best in the league, possibly only being rivaled by Liverpool and Manchester City, and could be the key in remaking United into a perennial title contender once again.
Now there are reasons for selling Pogba as well, and it does revolve around how Solskjær elects to use him and Fernandes in the same team. United will likely play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, despite the wide variety of tactical systems they have used in the final two months before the season was suspended, as it allows star forward Marcus Rashford to take up his preferred position on the left wing. The layout of the midfield does drastically change how Pogba and Fernandes could work together. In a 4-3-3, with both players in the number 8 role, both would have license to get forward, using their attacking creativity and skill to cause mayhem for the opposition, while also both having to share some of the defensive burden. It takes Fernandes out of his preferred number 10 role, but it is the best way to utilize the ability of both players. Issues stem from neither player being known for defensive ability or defensive work rates. While Pogba has played as a double pivot defensive midfielder in the past, it does not allow his best characteristics to be on display, and he can get caught up the pitch at times. Pogba would not be the ideal partner in this system, in my opinion, as I would prefer a midfielder in the mold of Atlético Madrid’s Saúl or Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, both of which are linked with moves to United. Both of those players are solid to strong attacking players, but are also solid defensive players, able to fill the mold of the “jack of all trades” box-to-box midfielder. They will join the attack late, but give the room and freedom to Fernandes to pull the strings going forward and occupy threatening spaces, while providing help for the defensive midfielder against a potential counter attack.
Similar negatives exist in a 4-2-3-1. Pogba played in a double pivot in France’s 4-2-3-1 during the World Cup alongside N’Golo Kanté, and while he did perform well there, it is not exactly an applicable example. Pogba was allowed ample time to go forward, as Kanté basically never did and Blaise Matuidi, playing on the left, was able to pick up any defensive slack when Pogba was caught forward. Also, France largely played a defensive-then-counter style, which allowed Pogba to defend with most of his team around him. Playing in a double pivot in a United team that will mostly control possession, he could be caught forward on counters, leaving the defensive midfielder and back line by themselves. It provides more freedom in the midfield to Fernandes, playing behind the striker, but it takes away the best traits from Pogba’s game. United’s best probable formation moving forward, in my opinion, is 4-3-3, so these concerns are not fully valid. However, it is still worth having the conversation.
Outside of formations, the biggest draw to selling Pogba is the money they could get back. Pogba is a brilliant midfielder in the prime of his career, so he will likely bring in a large transfer fee from whichever team wants to sign him. The fee may not get near the £89.3m that United paid for him in 2016, but it will still be a significant. United have very publicly aspired to make a big signing, with Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane being their prime targets. Both of those players will demand a massive fee, on top of whomever they sign to replace Pogba or to fill any other position, so they will need to bring in some revenue from outgoing transfers to keep the books balanced and avoid violations of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. United have a bit of a bloated squad, so they could make some money from selling fringe players, but probably not enough to afford a Sancho/Kane level player while keeping Pogba. Pogba has had some public transfer flirtations with several European clubs in the past, mainly Real Madrid and Juventus, so if those clubs are interested and make offers, it may be difficult to convince him to stay. It is never a good case, for any team with any player, to keep a player that does not want to be there, so it should be in United’s best interest to part ways should Pogba want to leave.
The COVID-19 impacted transfer market may influence all of this, with most teams having less money to spend on transfers. United may not get as much money back on a transfer, and some clubs could prefer money plus player deals, which could be less than ideal if the player offered is not a good fit. United could make a similar deal that Liverpool offered Luis Suárez, guaranteeing he will be sold to his preferred club if he stayed another year, in order to wait out the worst of the COVID-market and allow things to return to normal. They may think the risk of waiting a season could lead to a higher transfer fee in a year, but whatever extra profits they could get could be hampered by Pogba being in the last year of his contract (if/when United exercise their club option for an additional year). This is the calculus that United have to run, the potential cost/benefit analysis of selling now vs. keeping for a year and how that could impact the team’s rebuild and their timeline toward becoming a title contender, as well as the risks of missing out on a big name transfer.
See, this is quite difficult, right? There are quite a few different aspects to this decision. Would a Fernandes-Pogba partnership in midfield be as good as it sounds on paper? Will they be provided the time to work out any issues? Does the United hierarchy think they have a chance of bringing in a big name signing? Would they need to sell Pogba to finance it? My heart goes out to Solskjær, this is difficult.
So what would I do, you may ask? I would choose to sell Pogba, but I would ask myself a few questions first. Firstly, I would see if Pogba wants to leave. If the transfer flirtations continue, then it is probably time to let him go, but if he says he wants to stay, then I would definitely strongly consider keeping him for at least one season and seeing how things work. Related to this point, I would gauge his willingness of signing a new contract. They cannot afford to make the “Arsenal” mistake of letting an incredible player run down his contract and leave for a cut-rate fee, or worse, for free. Even with the poor transfer market, I would not risk keeping Pogba one more season and selling next season if he does not sign a new contract, as that would massively affect the fee United could get for him a year from now. I would also gauge the market for Pogba. If the interest is there, then the decision to sell him is much easier to make. Ultimately, I believe selling him is the right decision because, at least from my perspective of looking at the United rebuild, they need a forward much more than they need another very good attacking midfielder. If the media rumors are to be believed (and most of the time they are not, but still), United are close to a deal with Ajax for van de Beek, who would be a very solid signing. Van de Beek, combined with Fernandes and the emerging Fred, as well as Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matić, makes the Red Devils’ midfield solid enough to be successful, but they still need a striker and, possibly, a winger. The fee they could get back for Pogba allows them to shop for a top-tier forward, including the Harry Kane/Jadon Sancho level player they have wanted. Yes, this summer transfer window may be significantly different from past years, but it definitely appears to be the time to go after Kane and Sancho, who both appear to be at major crossroads in their careers. If United want to sign either of them, now appears to be the most ideal time. Pogba is a brilliant player who served United well the last four seasons, and he should be given a proper send off for his service to the club. However, now appears to be the time to sell.
While I personally believe it is time to sell, I think the impact that COVID-19 has had on the football world will delay major transfers one season. This will likely lead to drama over Pogba’s contract next season, making transfer negotiations more difficult for United next summer. Pogba should be relatively healthy again, however, and he should take his place in the midfield next to Fernandes, so we will all at least get to see how this potential partnership works out in reality. The debate will likely continue to rage around Pogba, and this one article will likely be a drop in the ocean of stories on this topic that will be written in the next year, but it appears, one way or another, Pogba and United have reached a crossroads in their relationship.