It wouldn’t be a transfer window without speculation surrounding Paul Pogba’s future.
The Manchester United midfielder, who played a pivotal role as France secured their second World Cup crown last month, returned to training with the Red Devils on Monday and could feature in their opening Premier League fixture of the season against Leicester City on Friday night.
Reports claiming the 25-year-old is unhappy with boss Jose Mourinho have been a common occurrence in 2018, however, and the latest suggest Barcelona are waiting in the wings.
Pogba’s ability to glide past opponents and thread passes through to teammates was apparent in Russia, where he was one of Didier Deschamps’ most consistent performers – no mean feat in a midfield featuring N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi.
United, however, were so often derided for the drab brand of football on show last season, in which they created the fewest chances of any top-six side despite finishing second; so, in conjunction with Mourinho’s less-than-flattering comments in the wake of the World Cup win, Pogba could be forgiven for becoming slightly disillusioned. And he wouldn’t be the only one.
“I’d much prefer Pogba to outlast Jose at United”
“I’m not sure Pogba is the only Manchester United player frustrated with life under Jose Mourinho,” says Simon Winter, a United supporter who writes about the club for website AskFans.
“Being forced to play in such a reductive, pragmatic way under an increasingly acerbic boss can’t be very enjoyable. I’d much prefer Pogba to outlast Jose at United, so I can relate to the Frenchman’s dissatisfaction much more than Mourinho’s.”
It is not the sole view held among the Old Trafford faithful, though. Fellow Red Devils fan Alex Leggate believes it is Pogba’s attitude at club level which is the more concerning issue.
“Sir Alex used to say nobody is bigger than Man United, something which both Mourinho and Pogba seem to have forgotten,” he argued.
“If I had to choose between the two, I’d back Mourinho on this occasion. Didier Deschamps also has a pragmatic style and yet Pogba was arguably the second-best midfielder at the World Cup. For his club, he comes across lazy and not interested.”
Could Barcelona be forced to pay £133m?
When Pogba returned to England following a four-year stay, the £89m world-record fee was considered gargantuan, but Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain has since blown that figure out of the water. Midfielders such as Philippe Coutinho have gone for £145m. Teenage talents Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele have fetched similar fees.
So how much is United’s most expensive player ever worth now? His current market value is €90 million (£81m), according to German website transfermarkt, though in January of this year, research group CIES Football Observatory put him at €147.5m (£133m) based on their assessment of “key criteria used by market actors such as age, position, contract duration, performance, international status” and more.
Of course, the sum a player will ultimately fetch in the real world is another matter, as market value and a player’s worth to his selling club operate on different dynamics, but there are some key statistics that might illuminate his contributions on the pitch.
It seems safe to say that while Pogba may have made marginal improvements in some facets of his game, the big leap forward in performance has not yet arrived. Pogba was the only player at United last season to record 10 top-flight assists. The only four players to set up more goals in the Premier League all played for Manchester City, incidentally. Meanwhile, his ambition to take the ball and provide ammunition for those up front is further demonstrated by the fact he made more than 1,000 forward passes in both seasons since the move back to M16, a milestone he didn’t once reach at Juventus.
What’s more, his stats initially seem to have stepped up a notch when compared to the 2016/17 season, when he contributed just five goals and four assists, despite playing 555 minutes more than he did in the most recent league campaign. However, he created the most chances during his first regular season in English football, meaning a case could be made that the source of improvement actually stems from those tucking said chances away.
It is in terms of brand, though, where Pogba appears irresistible and Simon points out that the player’s transfer value is not solely calculated based on what he does on the pitch: “Pogba is a fabulous player, but also a marketer’s dream. He’s got to be worth £200m, easily.”
Alex agrees the figure will be enormous, although feels the World Cup has helped to some degree.
“If France were knocked out in the group stage we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he said. “But given the fact he’s just won the World Cup and was arguably France’s most influential player in the tournament, he’s got to be worth £100m+.”
Who could replace Pogba if Man Utd were forced to sell?
Any deal to bring in a replacement this summer would have to be negotiated incredibly quickly. So quickly, in fact, so as to prove prohibitive in terms of any approach from Barcelona over the next few hours, especially when it is considered that one of the key names who could fill Pogba’s shoes, Mateo Kovacic, has joined Chelsea.
A January therefore move appears more plausible for Pogba, should reports of his desire to move be accurate. And if he does depart United for the second time in his career in the winter, who do the 20-time champions turn to?
One player in possession of a profile similar to Pogba is Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The 23-year-old already has experience of playing alongside Nemanja Matic in Serbia’s midfield and is a considerable physical presence, standing at 6’4’’. Along with an imposing frame, he is technically adept and has the ability to pass well with both feet, take players on in tight spaces and score a variety of goals, an aspect of his game which was showcased spectacularly last term.
Sergej Milinković-Savić vs. #CRC:
• Most chances created (3)
• Joint-most aerial duels won (4)
• 2nd-most take-ons completed (4)
• 4th-most clearances (4)
Does a bit of everything. pic.twitter.com/w1jg2NfurR
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 17, 2018
Again, the fan view is divided.
“Pogba has the potential to lead Man Utd into a new era whether under Mourinho or somebody else. He could become a great captain,” Alex said.
“However, if United want to sell, and make a good profit, I would re-invest in full-backs and obviously a Pogba replacement. Given Luka Modric’s willingness to speak to Inter, I would definitely be knocking on his door!”
Simon is significantly more pessimistic about the intentions of the club’s hierarchy. In fact, rarely has there been such despondency at Old Trafford heading into a new season. “I’m sure a large chunk of any potential Pogba fee could be spent by the Glazers (United’s owners) on home refurbishments,” he told us.
“With the change left over, I’m sure United could find an injury-prone midfielder approaching 30 that a big club is actively trying to dump.
“In terms of who would suit a Mourinho team better than Pogba? There are plenty of candidates. If you are over 6’2″ and enjoy standing deep in your own half, then you’ve got a good chance of being signed.”
Follow Simon Winter @SimonJWinter