After Paul Pogba’s two wonder goals in Juventus’s 4-0 win over Udinese on Saturday evening, talk amongst United fans turned to how it would have been great if the Frenchman, a product of the renowned Clairefontaine Academy, had stayed at Old Trafford. Pogba made an acrimonious move across the Channel in the summer of 2009 from Le Havre and spent three seasons at Old Trafford before deciding to join the Italian champions last summer; the second member of the midfield triumvirate so crucial to United’s FA Youth Cup success in 2011 to leave the club. It seems the overriding sentiment amongst United fans is that the club did all they could to keep him and that the Frenchman, now establishing himself as an important part of the Juventus side, left for more money. These sentiments are no doubt fuelled by the manager’s words whilst negotiations were ongoing with Pogba:
“Matt Busby summed it up perfectly when he said that you don’t have to chase money at a club like Manchester United. It will eventually find you. You will earn money and become rich.”
Or these words from the manager on Pogba’s departure:
“I don’t think he showed us any respect at all so, to be honest, I’m quite happy.”
Now, one can’t argue with the manager’s views that young players will eventually become rich at United but his words purported that Pogba’s decision was motivated by money. There’s no disputing that the Frenchman is earning more money at Juventus than he was offered at United. But was money the primary reason for his departure? I don’t believe it was; instead it was a lack of first-team opportunities that led Pogba to decide his career prospects would be best served with the Bianconeri. Indeed, Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola – admittedly not the most trustworthy of people – hinted at the same this week:
“When Paul understood that he wasn’t being enhanced, he decided that it was over in Manchester. He felt that a move away would do him good.”
Even the staunchest of the manager’s supporters will admit that it is puzzling why he has not sought to remedy our glaring problems in central midfield over the last few transfer windows. The continued reliance on the ageing legs of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs is not befitting of a club of United’s stature. It’s this inescapable fact which makes the lack of first team opportunities given to the young Frenchman last season puzzling. Pogba made no starts and just seven substitute appearances for the Reds last season, only three of those in the Premier League. This, despite Ferguson – in the summer of 2011 – warning of the consequences of not giving him chances in the first team:
“I mean if we hold Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave. You know, in a couple of years’ time, when his contract is going to finish. So we have to give him the opportunity to see how he can do in the first-team and he’s got great ability.”
So the manager was well aware of what not giving the Frenchman opportunities to showcase his talents in the first team would lead to. Yet, he chose to limit his opportunities to substitute appearances. To me, it made no sense, particularly given that central midfield is by no means an obvious position of strength for the Reds. In Pogba, United had a player who’s now sadly proving at Juventus that he could have become a cornerstone of the United first-team for the next decade; another hugely talented youngster to go with the likes of de Gea, Rafael, Smalling, Jones, Welbeck et al.
Now, a lot of United fans have highlighted that youngsters are generally eased into the United first team pointing to the likes of Cleverley and Welbeck as supporting evidence that young players at United need to bide their time before becoming first team squad members. However, with all due respect to Cleverley and Welbeck, at the age of 18 or 19, they were nowhere near the level of Pogba. At the age of 19, Cleverley was on loan at Leicester City, Welbeck on loan at Sunderland. Pogba, on the other hand, is playing regularly for Juventus, the champions of Serie A, alongside the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Kwadwo Asamoah. For Cleverley and Welbeck, it was the correct decision to bide their time and go out on loan because they weren’t ready for the United first team at that age. Pogba, on the other hand, was and he knew himself that he was. And before anyone challenges that, think about this: if Pogba can appear regularly in Juventus’s far superior central midfield this season, are you really going to suggest that he wasn’t good enough to play there for United last season?
If anything, in terms of ability at such a young age, Pogba should be compared to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, phenomenally talented youngsters who Ferguson had no qualms with plunging straight into first-team action. If they’re good enough, they’re old enough. Why should a player sit in the reserves for two years waiting for regular first team games when a) they’re better than the players in front of them (and Pogba will definitely have thought this) and b) you have the chance to go and play regularly for another top club; a club that’s just gone the whole season unbeaten in the league and arguably has a better chance of winning the Champions League than United? There’s a lot of talk about loyalty thrown around. Loyalty in football is a double-edged sword. Players can turn down better offers from other clubs early on in their careers in a sign of loyalty to their current club only to find that as soon as their ability’s declined, that club doesn’t think twice before showing them the door. How’s that for loyalty?
Yet for reasons that will always be unknown, Ferguson thought that Pogba should wait and wait for his chance whilst he continued to deploy the creaking bodies of Scholes and Giggs in central-midfield last season. Despite Ferguson claiming he had made assurances to the Frenchman that his time would come, it’s fairly easy to see why Pogba would not believe that it would.
Put yourself in Pogba’s position for a moment. You know that you’re good enough to be playing more regularly for United. Other top clubs are telling you that you would be starting for them. And yet, Ferguson opts to deploy Park and Rafael in central-midfield against Blackburn in December 2011; a disastrous decision that caused United to slip to a 3-2 defeat.
Then Ferguson chooses to bring Paul Scholes – although a great player, a player that is way past his best – out of retirement. If you’re Pogba, you’re sitting there thinking ‘I’d do a better job than those players’ and ‘the manager doesn’t have faith in me’. Why would you believe the manager when he claims that you will play more next season? How do you know that he won’t continue to pick Scholes and Giggs ahead of you?
Young players are mentally fragile. They want an arm around their shoulder. They want to know the manager has faith in them. It’s understandable that Pogba would see that he’s not being given opportunities despite United’s central midfield problems and conclude that Ferguson didn’t have faith in him and that therefore his best option was to leave the club. And no-one can say Pogba made the wrong decision as he continues to move from strength to strength in Turin. This season, he’s made eighteen appearances in all competitions, scoring four goals. Is anyone going to suggest he would have made the same number if he’d stayed at United?
And so, whilst Pogba continues to develop, looking destined to become a world-class player, United’s search for a central midfielder continues. Last night, the manager was at Celtic Park, supposedly to watch Celtic’s Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama who from what I’ve seen of him looks like an older, less talented, less classier version of Pogba. Sigh. The Frenchman has all the attributes to become a star: strength, pace, mobility, a good passing range and a cracking shot. There have been frequent comparisons with Patrick Vieira. He’s just what United need. And United had him only for their inability to give him enough first-team opportunities to cause him to depart. Unfortunately, despite having successfully brought through so many youngsters, on this occasion the manager only has himself to blame.
Do you agree/disagree with my views? Let me know by commenting below.
Watch Pogba’s two-goals against Udinese