It was never meant to end like this. Nearly six years ago, Paul Pogba’s return to Manchester United was announced on the club’s Twitter channel with the hashtag #Pogback and the caption “Home”. The supremely gifted defector had returned from Italy for a then world record fee of £93 million, having French exited out of Old Trafford on a free transfer to Juventus aged 20, after rising through the club’s historic academy setup.
The subject of many trainspotty YouTube videos that demonstrated Pogba’s obvious superiority at youth team level, to many United fans he left the club a prodigal prince never given an opportunity to claim the throne, cast out by Alex Ferguson’s (slightly bemusing) refusal to play him in midfield, despite there being no other midfielders available.
Pogba left for Turin and quickly established himself as one of the world’s best players. The record breaking 2016 transfer back “home” was meant to be the moment that Pogba was being reinstated to the Theatre of Dreams as its rightful king, with his coach and future nemesis Jose Mourinho imploring him “to be at the heart of this club for the next decade and beyond”.
Pogba represented a sliding doors moment for United in the club’s lost decade, a decision to go all in on star power and social media impressions, acquiring players with no real method or idea beyond a slavish devotion to the growth-obsessed culture that haunted the 2010s. Pogba arrived back at Old Trafford a fantastic player, and also football’s first true influencer, a maelstrom of hashtags, signature dances and hairstyles that drove vintage hardmen like Graeme Souness and Roy Keane to the verge of combustion. Outside of Ronaldo and Messi – who are dour in comparison with Pogba’s undoubted charisma – he was the most famous, the most funny, the most expensive. Walking viral content.
And yet, despite Pogba supposedly occupying a position at the heart of our digital panopticon, six years on he leaves United an unknown.
Pundits would spend entire segments arguing about his best position, without anybody – possibly even Pogba – being sure. Mourinho labelled him “a virus” at the same time as United insiders described him as ultra-professional and hilarious company. People were adamant he loved United, but he spent over half of his time at the club fluttering eyelashes towards the continent through the combative briefings of the late Mino Raiola.
United was once a kingdom of idols, a conveyor belt of players permanently etched into history, but the last 10 years has seen dysfunction spread its tendrils over everybody who comes there, diminishing their personalities to the point of public indifference. Memphis Depay’s time there has the feeling of a mate’s mate from uni you met once and weren’t sure about. Ángel Di María’s wife said “it is all horrible in Manchester”, but it might as well have been Di María himself – or anyone, really – who said it. Marcus Rashford has gone from national hero to being omitted from the England squad. These are all good footballers.
It’s been well observed that the sheen of the modern influencer creates unknowable personas, but in Pogba’s case he has a discernible talent, and lots of it. While it’s fair to assess that Old Trafford is not fertile ground for self-expression, Pogba’s six-year stay has been reminiscent of a drawn-out ambient record, punctuated by stabs of uncomfortable noise. It’s hard to remember a moment that this sporting icon did anything iconic in a red shirt. Two goals against City perhaps? He’s 29 now and the heady days of #Pogback or bromancing on holiday with Romelu Lukaku feel like aeons ago.
There’s always something uncomfortable about watching charm dim due to circumstance and that’s been the case with Pogba – often banished, confined to the bench, or thrust into the conversation solely as a sacrificial totem of his club’s failure, a symptom and a cause. Pogba’s stats at United were more underwhelming than unacceptable – 39 goals and 51 assists in 233 appearances, playing in a variety of always morphing, always dysfunctional teams. Some argue that racism was a contributing factor to the way he was treated and perceived by the British media and public, a black man whose comfort with building his brand sat uncomfortably with people who would prefer footballers to be seen rather than heard.
His last moment at Old Trafford will now be him departing the pitch, cupping his ears to home fans telling him to fuck off. A similar thing happened in 2019. It’s fair to assume that this wonderful player – and he is one – will go to another club this summer, find himself all over again and emerge from the swamp of the past six years.
He arrived at United as close to a sure thing as you can get and leaves with a million questions surrounding him. Nobody really knows whose fault it is.