Paul Pogba, an inconsistent footballer who had to leave an inconsistent football club

Ian King
Paul Pogba leave the pitch for Manchester United against Liverpool

Paul Pogba is leaving Manchester United again, a player whose biggest flaw became too visible at a club that couldn’t afford inconsistency.


In the end, the departure was treated just as any other might be. ‘Once a Red, always a Red’, said the Manchester United Twitter account, as Paul Pogba left Old Trafford for the second, and we might assume to be final, time. But as this latest spell with the club ends as unhappily as the first, was Paul Pogba ever really ‘a Red’, and how did the coming together of one of the biggest clubs on the planet and a player so lavishly talented that he’s capable of bending the course of a game to his will end up working out for neither party?

This isn’t, of course, the first time we’ve been here. Pogba’s relationship with the club was controversial from the outset. When he first arrived at Old Trafford from Le Havre in 2009, his former side stated that, ‘The player and his parents refused to keep the arrangement because Manchester United offered very high sums of money to the parents with the aim of obtaining the transfer of their son’. United were cleared of poaching Pogba from Le Havre, but a feeling of ill will remained.

Pogba’s first spell with Manchester United ended three years later amid similar acrimony, with the player having made just seven appearances for the club, of which only three came in the Premier League. With it clear that Pogba signed a pre-contract with Juventus that would result in the player leaving free of charge, Sir Alex Ferguson commented that: “It is disappointing. I don’t think he showed us any respect at all, to be honest.”

Whoever might have guessed that it might have ended like this?

These were all high-profile stories at the time, so it came as a particular surprise in 2016 to learn that Pogba would be rejoining United for a world-record fee of €105 million (£89.3 million). This time, we were informed it was different. Pogba had signed a six-year contract that was worth around £15m a year to him, while the club had secured the signing of this wildly talented player on a five-year contract at 23 years old (it was extended for a further year in 2020), which should have covered the very best period of his playing career. And if he was as successful as they assumed he would be, why would he even want to leave on a free transfer at the end of this contract?

A further six years down the line, history is repeating itself. It is worth pausing to take in just how predictable this situation was. In fact, it was so predictable that it seems to be doubling back on itself and becoming unpredictable again. You might have guessed in 2016 that, having lost him for nothing and buying him back for £89.3m, they would end up losing him on a free transfer again. But anyone suggesting that it might be to Juventus again would surely have been dismissed as a fantasist. If you predicted this in 2016 and didn’t intend it as a joke, I’d like to have a word with you about next weekend’s lottery numbers.

Manchester United knew the circumstances under which Pogba arrived at Old Trafford in the first place, and they knew the circumstances under which he left for Juventus in 2012. And the striking irony of this club spending a world-record transfer fee on a player they’d let slip from their grasp didn’t pass without comment at the time. Old Trafford wasn’t an especially happy place in June 2016. United may have just won the FA Cup, but they’d sacked Louis van Gaal within minutes of the final whistle and replaced him with Jose Mourinho, whose appointment was divisive from the outset. They had also just missed out on a Champions League place on goal difference to Manchester City.

The return of Pogba to Manchester United was a flex. A big marquee signing for a big marquee manager. Like several other Manchester United signings in recent years, it felt as though the signing was the point, that a broader strategy could wait while everyone cowered in the glare of such a vast amount of money.

The problem over the intervening six years is that Pogba’s return to Old Trafford coincided with a point in the evolution of the club game that requires greater consistency than ever before to stay in touch with the best. The best players achieve a certain level week in, week out. Increasingly the best players are those who can do it consistently, and the elite level are those who can do brilliance consistently. Every point, every goal can be so valuable that there is no space for those who can’t guarantee a certain level of performance.

There are exclusions for injury, which has certainly afflicted Pogba over the last couple of seasons, but this isn’t unconditional. Kevin de Bruyne and N’Golo Kante, for example, have more than proved their worth to Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, despite having both had significant issues with injury, because of what they offer when they are fit and selected. The harsh truth is that Pogba was not able to consistently hit that form when he was available for Manchester United.

Consequently, of course, this affects clubs. Manchester United have only been able to achieve the top level in fits and starts these last few years. United followed up that FA Cup win by winning the Europa League and EFL Cup the following season, and were Premier League runners-up in 2018 and then 2021, albeit under the weirdness of pandemic lockdown conditions. But they have barely ever been able to achieve the consistency of Manchester City and/or Liverpool in recent years and, more worrying, the end of the season saw that gap looking bigger than ever and still expanding.

Why should Pogba care? After all, he won Serie A four times and the Coppa Italia twice with Juventus, the Europa League and League Cup with Manchester United, and the World Cup with France. He’s won substantially more silverware over the last decade than Manchester United. Juventus are hogging all the headlines at present, but others might make offers as well. He’ll likely find it easier to attract significant offers from elite level clubs than Manchester United will to attract elite level players.

But ultimately, Manchester United and Pogba is a divorce that had to happen, a combustible marriage of an inconsistent footballer at an inconsistent football club, all under the harsh glare of that £89m price tag and the expectations that came with that. And it failed because they seemed to bring out the worst in each other. There seems little question that no matter what happens for either next, this was an inevitable and necessary break-up.