Paul Pogba, the Perpetual Wanderer: What Exactly is his Problem?

Paul Pogba, the Perpetual Wanderer: What Exactly is his Problem?

Tuesday, 11 September, 2018 - 08:00
Manchester United's Paul Pogba. (AFP)
London - Daniel Taylor
In the main entrance to the Cavée Verte academy, among the trophies won by the youth teams of Le Havre, there is a wall lined with photographs of some of the big names who have passed through these doors. There are about 30 of them in total, all wearing the light and navy blue of Les ciel et marine. Or almost all, anyway. The picture of Paul Pogba on this wall of legends is an action shot from a game for France. “He didn’t stay long enough for us to have photos of him in the club shirt,” an employee explains, almost apologetically, in the biography Pogba, written by Luca Caioli and Cyril Collot.

That’s often the way with Pogba. US Torcy’s website used to have its own gallery and, for reasons not fully explained, Pogba was apparently left off. This was Pogba’s club, briefly, on the outskirts of Paris, when he was starting to be noticed as a teenager. Then, a few months later, he was gone, upgrading to Le Havre. “We weren’t necessarily surprised,” explains the former president, Jean-Pierre Damont, “but a bit disappointed to have found out after the fact.”

Le Havre were so incensed by Pogba’s move to Manchester United they lodged a complaint with Fifa and in 2012, when Pogba ran down his Old Trafford contract to sign for Juventus, it was another sulfurous exit. United were convinced Pogba had agreed the move long in advance. “I don’t think he showed us any respect at all,” Sir Alex Ferguson said. “To be honest, if they carry on that way I’m quite happy that he’s away, from me anyway.”

At this point, you might point out that Pogba, to give him his due, did spend four seasons in Turin. Yet that can be slightly misleading given that, two years in, United were informed he was open to the idea of returning to Manchester.

David Moyes, United’s manager at the time, was attracted to him, too. But he also had some questions of Pogba that, to this day, still feel relevant. Why, he wanted to know, had Pogba already played for two of the biggest clubs in the world, aged only 21, and decided to leave both? Would he always have that wanderlust? Pogba always seemed to be discussing his next potential move, or being prominently linked with other clubs, and these were unattractive traits as far as Moyes was concerned. The asking price was steep, at £65m, and Moyes was reluctant to spend so much.

His loss, you might think, bearing in mind the traumas Moyes encountered in the job. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean he was entirely wrong about Pogba when there is so much evidence, two years after José Mourinho did bring him back to Old Trafford, that a player who left United for nothing, then returned for £89m, is doing exactly the same again.

What, for example, were we supposed to make of those thinly disguised comments, on international duty with France, when Pogba was asked about the reputed interest from Barcelona and could hardly have been more blatant if he advertised his thoughts from a neon sign round his neck. “My future is currently in Manchester,” he said. “I still have a contract, I’m playing there at the moment, but who knows what will happen in the next few months.”

Pogba had already informed a huddle of English journalists, on the very first day of the new Premier League season, that if he expressed his true feelings he would be fined and now, speaking to a television crew from Germany, he nodded in agreement when it was put to him that he and Mourinho sometimes had a fractious relationship.

Again, Pogba had the stage to kill the suggestion he wanted out, to clarify that he was happy in Manchester and say something positive for a change. He chose to go the other way and, in one respect, at least he wasn’t trying to spin everyone a lie. But you had to marvel at his nerve in the next round of interviews, within 24 hours, when he noted: “Rumors are rumors – but it’s not me who is talking.” Not always, perhaps, but in this instance he sounded very much like the man wearing a balaclava, at the scene of a bank robbery, with his pockets filled with banknotes, telling police which direction the crooks had run away.

Perhaps he also conveniently forgets that it is only a few months since Pep Guardiola let slip the claim that the player’s agent, Mino Raiola, had tried to persuade Manchester City to bid for Pogba in the January transfer window. Raiola subsequently claimed that was untrue and Mourinho’s verdict was that “one of them is a liar”. He was right, and I am pretty sure that if Guardiola and Raiola agreed to be strapped to a polygraph most of us would make the same guess whose needle would provide the wildest graph.

Raiola’s part in this story should certainly not be under‑appreciated bearing in mind the mind-boggling sum he pocketed for himself – £41m, according to the research of the Der Spiegel journalists Rafael Buschmann and Michael Wulzinger in the book Football Leaks: The Dirty Secrets of Football – from Pogba’s last transfer.

That, after all, is how agents make most of their money: flogging players, claiming their percentage and taking advantage of the fact that the elite clubs see this side of the business as a necessary evil. As such, it might suit Raiola to negotiate another big-money transfer and, if that is the case, we should know enough about his methods by now to realize that he usually gets his way.

Just consider the story Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another of Raiola’s clients, tells about going to see the Juventus director Luciano Moggi some years ago about renegotiating his contract. “I wanted to do the polite thing, treat him [Moggi] like the big-shot he was. The only thing was, I had Mino with me, and Mino doesn’t exactly bow and scrape. He’s nuts. He just strode into Moggi’s office and sat down in his chair with his feet on the desk, without a care in the world.” When Ibrahimovic explained it might not be appropriate, Raiola told him, expletives removed, to shut up. Moggi walked in. There were some angry words and, within an hour, Raiola had arranged the most lucrative deal in Juve’s history. “I knew this guy could negotiate,” Ibrahimovic said. “He was the master at it.”

The most disappointing part in Pogba’s case is that when he returned to England it was as the most expensive player in the league and it is difficult to think of more than a smattering of games when he has fulfilled that reputation. Where is the professional pride to show he was worth such a vast sum of money? Should it not be his priority to put that right, to demonstrate why Mourinho once acclaimed him as the best midfielder in the business, to remove the more listless performances and, more than anything, to start playing in a way befitting of his status, as a World Cup winner and category-A superstar? What, in short, is his problem?

If the answer is Mourinho, it might be some time before we learn why. But it has to be sad that a player with Pogba’s gifts does not appear to have his heart in it and his latest offerings remind me of Cristiano Ronaldo’s final season in Manchester, when he, too, made it abundantly clear there were better adventures to be had elsewhere. The difference is that Ronaldo, unlike Pogba, had made sure, before anything else, that if United had their own wall of fame his photograph would be among those hanging proudly on it.

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