In the end, the process was simpler than many imagined. Any serious follower of the game has predicted for years that, when Paul Pogba—absurdly precocious and ludicrously talented Juventus midfielder—was finally convinced that he’d outgrown the Bianconeri and Serie A and decided to make the leap from the Italian super-club to one of the select few super-duper-clubs, it would be an all-out war between Europe’s Goliaths to secure his services. And while Barcelona last summer and Real Madrid this window did flirt with the idea of seriously going after the 23-year-old phenom themselves, from the moment it became clear about a month ago that Pogba was at last ready to move on up to last night when it was finally announced, Manchester United were always favorites to close the deal.
It’s undeniable that this transfer is a monumental coup for United. The club has repeatedly tilted at the biggest windmills in the sport—Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Neymar—in hopes of making them their own in the midst of their post-Sir Alex identity crisis. United had the name and the money, but lacked the results, the manager, the players, the competitions, and the auspicious future to have anything more than the slimmest of chances of bringing in an established superstar to return the club to the heights of the past—heights many fans and the club’s behind-the-scenes leaders still refuse to believe they’ve fallen from. Pogba isn’t at that Messi/Ronaldo/Bale/Neymar/Griezmann level of greatness yet, but he’s right on the cusp and with all the tools to get there sooner than later. He’s exactly what United have needed and they’ve finally made it happen.
How, then, did a Europa League team like United succeed in luring a truly elite player this time, after their previous failures? To a certain degree, Pogba really has joined a different United than the ones Neymar and Bale never would have considered moving to just a season or two ago. Rather than a once-heralded, now-struggling angry manager on his way out, Louis van Gaal, leading the team, the Red Devils have José Mourinho at the helm, one of the greatest coaches of this generation. Rather than a squad bereft of a single outfield player who either is or at some point was projected to become one of the world’s best in his position—the young and raw and inexperienced yet incredibly gifted Anthony Martial the one exception—United now boast a roster with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly to go along with the rapidly-improving Martial, all players who are either stars right now or should be imminently. United have amassed the raw materials on the pitch and on the sideline to mount a serious title challenge.
Sure, they aren’t in the Champions League, that most prestigious of competitions for which Pogba’s recently departed club has sacrificed piles and piles of cash in order to win the thing as soon as possible. But United do offer enough promise and potential (and, not insignificantly, unsurpassed international fame) that it’s not crazy that Pogba was convinced that rejoining his old club now, as the team’s iconic player for what will hopefully be a swift ascent of soccer’s sporting summit, was a worthy challenge.
But those don’t actually seem like the major considerations that paved Pogba’s path back to Manchester. The bricks of the road leading Pogba to United were made of real gold, in the form of the unbelievable sums United and United alone were willing to shell out. North of €100 million to Juve. Something like £300,000 in weekly wages to Pogba. About €20 million to Mino Raiola, his agent. Despite the staggering costs, this remains a great bet for United. But still. Look at all that money.
It’s now clear that most of the holdup on this deal was the Frenchman’s understandable desire to enjoy the entirety of his well-deserved summer vacation. (It’s not a coincidence that Pogba only made it to Manchester to finalize the deal yesterday, the same day he was supposed to report to back Juventus for preseason training.) However, it’s also hard to shake the idea that to some degree, Pogba held out hope that Real Madrid would enter the fray for real.
There were reports (like this one) that Pogba preferred Madrid to Manchester, and it makes all the sense in the world: Real are already what Manchester want to again be. Going from Juventus to Real—a club that, along with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, holds one of what are right now three spots at the uppermost echelon of the game—would be the exact kind of clear step up in quality his talents and potential deserve.
(Trading Juve for United, in contrast, is in some ways lateral move; there is a dip in team quality and chances for immediate trophies, but an increase in worldwide name recognition of the league and the team especially.)
It would appear that Pogba’s style of play would be much better served at Real, as the most free, most attacking midfielder in a 4-3-3 alongside Luka Modrić and with Toni Kroos playing behind them, than it would be in what by all appearances will be his deeper role as one of the two central mids in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1.
Pogba is great at a few things (scoring goals himself, setting them up for his teammates), really good at a great many things (maintaining possession, dribbling, smart positioning, etc.), but as demonstrated in the difference between his free, attack-minded role at Juventus, where he was great, and the deeper, reserved role he played for much of this summer’s Euro 2016 with the France team, where he was only OK at best, Pogba is far and away at his best when unconstrained and empowered to charge into the most dangerous areas of the pitch with abandon.
Pogba would probably be happier and almost certainly perform better running around wherever he wanted, sliding the ball into the runs of Ronaldo and Bale and Karim Benzema and smacking in shots of his own than he will be sitting back next to Michael Carrick while waiting for inferior attackers like Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard to do what Pogba himself does best. (Now, if Mourinho decides to push the club into its post-Rooney future sooner than expected and implements a 4-3-3 built to facilitate Pogba’s genius going forward, or favors using a more fluid-moving No. 10 like Mkhitaryan over Rooney to better compensate for Pogba’s attacking runs in a 4-2-3-1, this could all be substantially mitigated.) For so many reasons, Real seemed much more ready to set up Pogba to thrive than United are.
And yet, Man U paid Juve and Pogba and Raiola and Real didn’t, so he’ll be playing in red rather than white. For Manchester, the decision to pay up is perfectly understandable. With Pogba, they get the superstar (in the popular imagination if not quite yet in realized ability) they’ve long coveted, which, along with their other signings this year, should finally match their on-pitch talent with their off-pitch economic stature and cultural relevance. The record-breaking nature of the deal itself is actually a boon going forward, as it serves as concrete proof of the club’s financial weight and its ability to attract the best. Pogba is worth more to United than he would be to anyone else, and they demonstrated this by paying what no one else was willing to.
For Real, it also makes some sense that they’d resist the allure of another Galáctico. Pogba would’ve been an upgrade on James Rodríguez (who probably would’ve needed to have been sold to make way for the Frenchman) or Isco, the two players most likely to fill what would’ve been Pogba’s midfield spot, but he still wouldn’t have been one of the team’s five-best players while commanding one of its highest salaries. It would’ve been a little hard for even Real justify that expenditure.
The only questionable decision here lies with Pogba’s choice to leave now. Had he waited another season, maybe James would’ve put together another disappointing campaign and Real would’ve been more serious about finding a replacement, or maybe it would’ve been Barcelona or Bayern that struggled in the midfield and sought to give Pogba a more attractive situation to play his way into. In the meantime, Pogba could’ve won another Serie A title, developed more as a player, and maybe even given the Old Lady’s fans the Champions League trophy they’ve already been tantalizingly close to these past few years. But when it was evident that Manchester had the necessary money and the willingness to spend it, it seemed like Pogba too decided that the numbers were too hard to turn down and decided it was time to make his move.
Everything should work out just fine for all parties involved in both the short and long term. United got their star, Pogba got his money and his record transfer and his return to the club that obviously still holds a special place in his heart, and the two could and should be successful together. Nonetheless, the new Pogba-United relationship appears to be something a marriage of convenience. Which, as history shows, shouldn’t preclude it from being a long and happy one.