First of all, a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you’re stacking shelves at Tesco. You’re getting paid about £7.80 an hour – enough to buy what you absolutely need each week, as long as you don’t have much dignity on your shopping list. Then the floor manager comes to you. He says, John – next week you’ll be getting a raise. £900 per hour.
Instantly you feel a flood of adrenalin at an amount of money that bears no relation to the job in hand, the euphoria of all the financial pressures hanging over you suddenly knocked off like bowling pins. Then your rational, suspicious side kicks in. What do I have to do for it? Nothing. Same as you always did.
So now you have to be shelf-executive, or whatever dignified title Tesco has given you, for £900 an hour. And, as part of the experience – everyone else knows you’re getting it. All eyes on you, and your £900/hr shelf-stacking game. By Monday lunchtime, every time you go to pick up a Battenburg cake, this new, weird, insidious voice in your head asks is that how a £900/hr shelf-executive picks up a Battenburg? You have no idea. By Tuesday you feel it’s possible you’re actually doing this job worse than when you were on £7.80. Emotions that were never a part of this job start to plague you. On Wednesday the floor manager returns, says you’re getting a raise. £2000 per hour. Everyone in the store is waiting to see if you can prove you are or aren’t worth that amount of money. How do you feel about your job now?
You’d assume that, by now, most big clubs have got the message about the deleterious effect insane transfer fees have on the player suffering under them. Amongst the top ten most expensive transfers of all time are Ousmane Dembele, Phillipe Coutinho, Eden Hazard, Joao Felix and of course Paul Pogba. Every single one of those has been markedly worse since their transfer; one has left the club while others have become an awkward Bentley of a bench-warmer. Which of course is what you want when you spend £100million-plus on a player – someone to bring a new angle to the bench-chat.
It’s something that’s worth considering – that on the snowiest peak on the mountain of insanity that is football’s current transfer habit, 50% of the climbers have bought a player worse than the one they paid for.
Everyone knows, aided by the internet’s grasp of morality, what you’re not supposed to do to people in privileged positions – sympathise. Nobody sympathises with someone getting paid vast amounts to play football. But maybe we should try. If that doesn’t sound particularly appealing, can we agree at least there’s not a single other form of anything, anywhere, where a human is told they’re a £100million item, and is shown the bank transfer to prove it? No other sport comes close. It doesn’t happen in business, in movies, nada. So sympathise with that at least. At being alone, in your 20s, on a weird, sharp end of human commerce.
If you can muster that level of sympathy, then presumably you sometimes also wonder what it would actually feel like to be 24, with millions, if not billions of fascinated eyes of the world on you, with hugely more than the average annual salary of any country plopping fatly into your account each week, and trying to figure your footing within all of that.
Beyond questioning the sound logic of transfers which seem to freeze their subject, turning them into a shadow of themselves, what’s the effect of being paid too much money for what you’re doing? Because we know those salaries are too much money, let’s not pretend we don’t – that way lies insanity, and you end up with the blanched, goggle-eyed look of Ed Woodward, trying to act like this all makes sense to you, noodle-partner conversations and all.
To put the question in a more specific way – what might it have done to Paul Pogba?
First of all, I’m biased. Towards Pogba. There are few things more sordid in media terms than those middle-aged-to-old white morons of Fleet Street’s yesteryear deciding that the flashy 20s excess of Pogba, and naturally Raheem Sterling, is worthy of comment. Anything that goes against the moral hypocrisy of those guys is fine by me.
I’d like to see Pogba succeed. Because it’s a sight to behold. I’ve seen him play live in Turin when he was succeeding, and the way in which – when he’s in the groove – he glides, wandering around players as if he didn’t notice their attempt to take the ball, pinging and shuffling and feinting, represents to me the rarefied air of elite football. Its otherness, compared to how I play football, which is more like a kid banging saucepans to make music.
Nonetheless, there can’t be a United fan on the planet who feels like they’ve got their money’s worth from their alleged midfield maestro. The most positive adjective you could apply to his contribution thus far, if you were to take out ‘Instagrammy’, is ‘sporadic’. In the moments when it happens, I think Pogba is the finest proponent of a clipped pass, designed to brush the hairline of a leaping centre-back before landing cosily on a striker’s toe, on the planet. He’s deft, visionary, he’s a maestro. Then he’s nothing for an hour, or two games, or a month.
But as anyone who followed his time at Juve could attest, those things he occasionally produces in England are so not the be-all of Pogba. Missing from the list, and almost never seen at Old Trafford, is surging, boisterous Pogba, the go-to for 30-yard screamers, an overwhelmingly positive force. Instead, a grim collection of adjectives has replaced them. Cautious, angsty, nearly, flimsy, inconsistent. Or almost inconsistent. He’s practically bought a timeshare on the areas just to the right and left of the goalposts when he shoots from the edge of the box. He seems trapped in that difficult place we’ve all had some experience of, whatever we do, where under pressure it feels like the first aim is to not miss, a very different feeling to ‘score’.
In his shoes I would feel more guilty and more under pressure each week, given the difference between the payment and the performance. Something is expected of you, that defies all sane expectation, and now you have to produce it. In the best moments of Pogba in England, it looks like, even if for mere seconds at a time, he’s forgotten he’s the £89milion, £290,000-per week man.
Far too often, intentionally or not, the psyches of footballers are lumped together, as if there was a mental category marked ‘Footballers’ with all the potato-headed, standardised assumptions that implies. They are not, this can’t be stressed enough, all the same in how they handle life. There was a wonderful article published on this site, questioning the wisdom of playing teenagers in the big leagues; not long after, Bojan Krcic did an interview with Sid Lowe where he spoke of his anguish at the response in Spain, pulled straight from the ‘Footballers’ box – how dare he, where’s the gratitude? – to him withdrawing from the international team for Euro 2008, when, as he put it, “I was scared, I was ill, I was overwhelmed.” He was 17.
So it may well be that while some things, including ungodly amounts of money, might bounce off the iron hide of a Cristiano Ronaldo, they trouble the psychology of others, under the breezy, chill-about-everything here-for-the-banter attitude most of us are adopting in our 20s. You have your each-game-as-it-comes James Milners; you have your Robert Enkes. It would be wonderful to poll every footballer across Europe’s leagues and find out how much, hand on heart, they think is the right amount of money for them – for their peace of mind, as much as anything. But such admissions are sadly not much a part of the culture we live in. Instead we talk about money in such a strange, distorted way, as a fantasy and a black-and-white simplicity intertwined. He gets more money, the kind I can only dream of: he is better/lucky.
It would be interesting to ask Pogba, especially. To know if, once Mino Raiola has been forcibly ejected from the room, he felt the pound-by-pound weight of his salary’s expectation dragging down every note of the magic that used to crescendo from his boots in a careless opera. If you get reduced under that financial pressure to only your most reliable functions, so that you take no risks that might expose you as fraud. When you’re a teenager signed on a free transfer, everything you contribute has the air of a bonus, you’ve got a free rein to be vastly better than anyone expected. Now you’re having to prove, constantly, something that no-one – let alone a youngster – should, cooked up in rooms you presumably weren’t in and eventually presented to you with a celebratory #POGBACK on a Twitter feed. There are so many things Pogba can do on a football pitch that he’s not currently doing, and you have to wonder what’s stopping him. We can offer the arguments about teammates, manager system, club environments; but still, you wonder.
Put yourself back in the shoes of the shelf-stacker. Now on 2k/hr. How do you think you’re going to sound if you go up to one of your colleagues, still on £7.80, and tell them you need them to be the leader…weird, for one. Like you don’t get your duty, for two. But, what if you do actually need that? It’s misguided to equate the physical stature, the top-boy athletic grace of Paul Pogba with leadership skills. For better – the vain-tinted, off-script stylings of his play – and for worse, he seems like a big kid. Where was he best? We all know the answer – where he could be the best kid in the playground by a mile, surrounded by the stylish, craggy ruffians of Juventus to keep watch – Chiellini, Bonucci, Marchisio and Buffon. Now he looks around and sees Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, Victor Lindelof and Andreas Pereira. He’s expected to be chief protector of that shower.
United have got themselves in a horrible bind, where they’ve spent £100million-plus on a player who must be front-and-centre of their operation, its alpha-male standard bearer and, in reality, what they bought is a boyish player who needs back-up like Richie Rich needed Cadbury. So yes indeed, to those arguments about teammates and club environments; as with everyone else, you’d assume that Paul Pogba is a composite of influences, including the mysterious ones beyond our comprehension.