28 Jun 2022 | 08:04 | Football
It is the summer of 2016. Jose Mourinho is the Manchester United manager and the club has just broken the world transfer record. A Frenchman has returned to Old Trafford for unfinished business.
“This is the right club for me to achieve everything I hope to in the game,” Paul Pogba said after completing his £89m move back to United from Juventus.
“He has the chance to be at the heart of this club for the next decade and beyond,” Mourinho added.
It was a deal that caused a social media frenzy. Emerging from the shadows with a red devil marked into his hair, Pogba’s announcement video was followed by a sponsored music clip featuring Stormzy. The hype over #POGBACK had begun.
It was supposed to be the start of something special. A new era for a club still struggling to find its feet after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson three years earlier.
But Pogba has been unable to inspire United to former glories. The 2017 League Cup and Europa League are the only trophies of his six-season spell.
After being booed off the pitch against Norwich and suffering a calf injury at Liverpool in April, Pogba will now leave the club for a second time. He cannot solely be blamed for United’s lack of success, but his departure signals an underwhelming end to a transfer that promised so much.
As his contract expires and Europe’s biggest clubs prepare to pounce, Sky Sports looks at Pogba’s second United career.
How did it go so wrong? Was he mismanaged? Or was it Pogba who made the mistake?
It is a question that even now, almost six years on from his second United debut, those in the Old Trafford dugout both past and present still struggle to answer.
But how did it begin?
In his first game back against Southampton in August 2016, Mourinho played Pogba in a deep midfield role alongside Marouane Fellaini. The Frenchman had 107 touches in the game, 34 more than anyone else on the pitch. He also regained possession more times than any other player, while still finding the energy to burst forward. He finished the match having had four shots at goal – two more than any team-mate.
Pogba scored nine goals and registered six assists in 51 appearances as he helped United win the League Cup and Europa League in 2016/17. In those finals, he started in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but at times throughout the campaign appeared on the left-hand side of a midfield three. Pogba’s 57 chances created, 1,852 passes completed and 2,839 touches were his highest totals across his six seasons at the club.
Despite a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League, it was a successful year for Pogba – with the promise of more to come. But it came to mark the high point of his second spell at Old Trafford.
Pogba remained in a central role for the majority of the 2017/18 campaign as United finished runners-up to Manchester City and lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea, but he featured sporadically towards the end of Mourinho’s tenure as the pair’s relationship deteriorated.
Reintegrated into the squad by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and playing slightly more advanced, Pogba went on to end the 2018/19 season with 16 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, comfortably his best return in terms of goal involvements. Having scored three Premier League goals that campaign before Mourinho’s sacking, he scored 10 under Solskjaer and ended as United’s top scorer.
It is certainly a personal highlight of Pogba’s return, but also serves to show that he struggled to consistently produce those levels and fulfil his true potential.
After an injury-hit and Covid-interrupted 2019/20 season, he made 42 appearances in all competitions during 2020/21 as United finished second in the Premier League and lost to Villarreal in the Europa League final. It was during this campaign that he was often utilised in a wider position on the left flank – a role he would continue in at the start of 2021/22.
He set up four goals as United thumped Leeds 5-1 on the opening day in August, another in the 1-1 draw at Southampton and two more against Newcastle in September. He finished joint-seventh in the Premier League assist chart with nine, but seven of those were in the opening four games.
In September 2016, Pogba made no secret of where he wanted to play in an interview with Sky Sports’ Thierry Henry ahead of the Manchester derby. “If you play a three [in midfield] I can play on the right or left, but I feel more comfortable to play on my left.”
With both Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick preferring a 4-2-3-1 formation in recent years, though, it has not been possible for Pogba to operate in his favoured role. At the base of the midfield in that system, Scott McTominay and Fred – or at times Nemanja Matic – have been trusted more than him to remain disciplined and regularly shield a four-man defence. The No 10 position Pogba once thrived in at times under Solskjaer has also been filled by Bruno Fernandes since his arrival in January 2020.
Almost six years after his comments to Henry, Pogba told French newspaper Le Figaro: “At Manchester United do I really have a role? I ask the question but I don’t have an answer.”
Finding Pogba’s best position has not been impossible for others who have coached him. While a 4-2-3-1 does not always appear to suit him, it is a system he prospered in under Didier Deschamps on the international stage for France. In the 2018 World Cup final, he started in a double pivot with N’Golo Kante, but perhaps the Chelsea man’s unbelievable work rate and Blaise Matuidi’s ability to naturally move in from the left masked his defensive frailties.
Potentially, playing in his preferred position on the left of a midfield three in a 3-5-2 formation gets the best out of Pogba, as he often did under Antonio Conte at Juventus. With Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal alongside him, the added reassurance of three central defenders, two overlapping full-backs and a second striker who often dropped back to receive the ball gave Pogba more freedom to express himself.
At United, though, the debate over his best position has never ended. He created more chances and made more passes when playing in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but play him in a more attacking role like Solskjaer did at the beginning of his reign and Pogba scores more goals. Play him wide on the left and he becomes an assist machine, but his preferred role, in his own words, is on the left of a midfield three.
“I’m not doubting his quality, but he doesn’t work hard enough. If anyone says he gives 100 per cent in every game, that’s a lie,” Sky Sports‘ Jamie Carragher said.
“Paul Pogba, whether in a French shirt or for Manchester United, shows unbelievable quality and does special things at different times, but we’re around six years in and still talking about his best position and who can get the best out of him.”
2016/17 season: Missed three games with a hamstring injury.
2017/18 season: Missed 12 games due to a thigh muscle rupture.
2018/19 season: Missed two games due to a muscle injury.
2019/20 season: Missed a total of 40 games due to a recurring ankle injury.
2020/21 season: Missed 13 games due to an ankle injury and then a hamstring issue.
2021/22 season: Missed 19 games due to a hamstring problem and then a calf injury.
Pogba’s time at United has been shrouded in controversy and it would be remiss not to mention the deterioration of his relationship with Mourinho.
After two trophies in his first season under the Portuguese, what was supposed to be a solid foundation to rebuild the club’s success soon crumbled away. In 2017/18, United finished a distant second behind Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Manchester City in the Premier League and lost to Conte’s Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Seven months later and Mourinho was gone.
The major cracks first started to appear at the beginning of 2018. After being brought off just after an hour in away defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle, Pogba started on the bench for both legs of the Champions League last-16 defeat by Sevilla.
His two-goal heroics and man-of-the-match performance at Manchester City that April as United overturned a 2-0 deficit to win and deny their rivals from claiming the title was a highlight on the pitch, but speculation over Pogba’s future continued to increase off it.
By the time Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 following a 3-1 loss at Liverpool, Pogba – an unused substitute at Anfield – had been stripped of United’s vice-captaincy and was filmed having a disagreement with his manager at training by the Sky Sports cameras.
“Once I had a great relationship with Mourinho, everybody saw that, and the next day you don’t know what happened,” Pogba told Sky Sports in April last year. “That’s the strange thing I had with Mourinho and I cannot explain to you because even I don’t know.”
Pogba’s revelation in March that he has experienced depression “several times” during his career was an important reminder that professional footballers are not immune from pressure and criticism becoming too much.
He was hurt by the reaction of United supporters who booed him when he was substituted during the 3-2 win over Norwich at Old Trafford in April. As he walked down the tunnel at the end of the match, he was jeered again, before cupping his hand behind his ear in retaliation.
Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t the first time.
When United concluded their 2018/19 Premier League campaign with a 2-0 home defeat by relegated Cardiff City, Pogba was seen receiving verbal abuse from some angry United fans in the Stretford End.
United’s season had ended in terrible form, collecting just two points from their final five games. Pogba, of course, wasn’t solely to blame, but he often bore the brunt of the fans’ frustrations. Over the years, several public comments about his future from himself and former agent Mino Raiola, who passed away in April, couldn’t have helped his relationship with supporters.
Speaking in 2021, former United captain Roy Keane did not hold back in his assessment of Pogba’s second stint at the club.
He told Sky Sports: “As we’ve all discussed many times over the last few years, Paul Pogba’s a talented player, there’s no getting away from that. But I still feel he hasn’t done enough at Man United. As he mentioned he fell out with Mourinho, which was a big problem at the club.
“I think when Man United signed Pogba, it wasn’t to be playing in the Europa League or to be winning the League Cup. They paid big transfer fee, big wages for the likes of him, for United to be competing for league titles and the Champions League.”
But as his time at Old Trafford comes to an end, the debate now turns to where Pogba goes next. Despite reported interest from Manchester City, he is likely to move abroad. Former employers Juventus are holding talks over his possible return to Italy, while Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are among a host of Europe’s biggest clubs also interested in signing him.
With 39 goals and 51 assists in 226 appearances since returning to Manchester, Pogba has won just two major honours. He has not had the desired impact many were hoping for, but do not be surprised if he flourishes elsewhere. In fact, it would be a shock if he didn’t.
“The last piece of the puzzle.” That is how Jose Mourinho described Manchester United’s Europa League final win over Ajax in May 2017. United were, he pointed out, now a club that had won every trophy in the world of football.
The victory that night in Stockholm was supposed to be the beginning, not the end. It may have been their third trophy of the season – as Mourinho memorably gesticulated with his fingers – but it had also been what he described as his most difficult season as a manager.
United muddled through at times, finishing sixth in the Premier League. But back then even a spluttering version of the red machine seemed capable of churning out silverware. Louis van Gaal had been sacked with the FA Cup plonked right in front of him.
There was an acceptance that United needed to improve and an assumption that they would. Instead, the fifth anniversary of that win came and went but it remains the club’s most recent trophy. Liverpool have won six since then. Manchester City have won 11.
How has that happened? How has it been allowed to happen? It is a tale of hubris and self-harm, a club hindered by too many voices and too few. From ownership to recruitment, the problems were myriad. The solution? It is unclear whether that has yet been found.
With five years now having passed since United’s last trophy, we look at how and why it went wrong for a club that had once been synonymous with success…
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