£100 million is a sign of desperate times … and worth every penny
It’s a simple equation: Manchester United needs Paul Pogba more than Paul Pogba needs to be with the Reds. Sign o’ the times. It’s little wonder that Juventus has backed Ed Woodward into a corner over the mooted £100 million transfer fee, with agent Mino Raiola battering the executive vice chairman into submission over his commission. Despite reports of a ‘stalled bid’ and renewed Real Madrid interest the Reds will probably end up paying all of it. It’ll still be a bargain if it helps bring the Premier League trophy back to Old Trafford.
After all, the transfer, when complete, will create a very different feel to José Mourinho’s midfield heading into the new season – perhaps offering the Portuguese maestro title-winning strength-in-depth, which he palpably does not hold now.
The financial equation is stark because of what happened to United, in particular central midfield, under Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman thought that he had depth too. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick were augmented in summer 2015 by the acquisitions of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The sextet promised so much more than it eventually delivered.
Indeed, questions surrounding the performance of United’s central midfield, from defensive to attacking positions, will shape the Reds’ season to come. Pogba will add genuine class when the transfer is complete (forgive Rant for jinxing it, etc and so on), but José must also eek out greater performance from others in his squad if his side is to challenge in the coming year.
Herrera remains an enigma, but the kind of player that should prosper under Mourinho. The Spaniard’s key qualities – a high-tempo passing game with frantic energy off-the-ball – were slowly eroded by Van Gaal’s dogmatic approach. The Dutchman seemingly never trusted the 26-year-old to the point that Herrera rarely gained rhythm last season – a campaign in which he was in and out of the first team far too often. There is more to come if Mourinho can foster greater consistency of performance.
Fans might come to a similar conclusion about Mata, whose numbers remain impressive, despite rarely being used in his natural position by David Moyes or Van Gaal. Mata is unlikely to spend the season on the wing for Mourinho though – he barely lasted six months under the Portuguese manager last time out. The real question is whether Mata is more likely to spend time on the bench or away from Old Trafford altogether? Mourinho says the former though that may well be rhetoric.
The old guard of Carrick and Schweinsteiger is a problem, especially if either is forced to play much in the coming season. Neither did much last season to justify selection in this. The German began the campaign physically out-of-shape, and ended it injured. Nobody at United should be surprised – it is a long-standing pattern. In between there were performances of genuine class and leadership, but far too many games where Schweinsteiger was over-run by physically stronger and more mobile opponents.
The same is true of Carrick, whose legs have obviously gone. Yet, the Geordie also remains a player of such experience that a newly signed one-year contract was a prudent and reasonably cheap move by the club. Logically only one should stay; José appears to have picked.
In a more surprising move still, it seems that Fellaini is set for a fourth campaign at Old Trafford. The Belgian is a neither defensive player, with sound covering instincts, nor a creative force in the final third, nor a player with the legs to run central midfield. He remains a strange acquisition three years on, although Mourinho is probably retaining the Belgian for his ‘physical presence and height’. The new manager will soon find out that this observation translates to little more than pointy elbows and a record in the air that is surprisingly poor for a player of his frame.
More could come from Morgan Schneiderlin though, whose box-to-box performances at Southampton were replaced under Van Gaal by a player inhibited within a more prosaic system. That Schneiderlin was fifth choice central midfielder for France this summer says much about his falling star. Yet, he is probably is set for a role as Mourinho’s principle defensive midfielder, perhaps alongside Pogba. Time will tell whether the Reds might yet regret not making a bid for compatriot N’Golo Kante, whose £30 million move to Chelsea is a relative steal.
Then, of course, there’s the big one: Wayne Rooney’s future. Back in May the Scouser admitted that his days as a marauding striker were effectively over by declaring that “sometimes you have to make choices in your career and at the moment it’s better for me to play deeper.” With a body aged beyond his years, the logic is that Rooney’s career and the team’s needs are better served in a midfield role where explosive pace is not essential.
"It’s a simple equation: United needs Pogba more than Pogba needs to be with the Reds. Sign o’ the times. Little wonder Juventus has backed Ed Woodward into a corner over the fee."
Mourinho doesn’t see it that way, of course, arguing that Rooney will “never be a six or an eight… 50 meters from goal” under his management. More concerning for Rooney is the new manager’s assertion that “maybe he’s not a striker any more” either.
Run the logic to its conclusion and the Scouser is likely to start the season at 10. Forget the red-herring of Rooney’s end to the last campaign, where under little pressure he enjoyed clipping 50-yard ‘Hollywood Balls’ around Old Trafford. It is a role to which he is wholly unsuited and has rarely excelled.
Meanwhile, Mata, who remains the squad’s only natural 10, will sit on the bench or start the campaign elsewhere. Has Mourinho fallen into the same star-struck trap as Roy Hodgson, Moyes and Van Gaal – or is this the campaign that United’s captain is slowly eased out of the team? Either way, Mourinho is left with plenty of questions across midfield to ponder before the big kick off in August.
Should Pogba sign, United’s central midfield will contain a genuine world-class performer for the first time since Paul Scholes’ retirement. The Frenchman contributed eight goals and 12 assists in Serie A last season. Over the campaign he scored more goals, delivered more assists, created more chances, and took more shots per game than any current United central midfielder – by some distance. Mata made more successful passes and more key passes, but then with Pogba at eight and the Spaniard at 10 the pair should be a complement, not competitors for one position.
Beyond his value on the pitch, there are few players more globally marketable than Pogba off it. The ‘coming home’ narrative should be an embarrassment to the club, but can be spun for huge commercial gain. With Rooney on the wane, Pogba will emerge as United’s new face for a hot global sponsorship market just in time. A symbol of United’s financial muscle, even if the club has suffered three relatively gloryless years, save for Van Gaal’s parting gift of the FA Cup.
Which, of course, will leave much egg on Woodward’s face if the executive fails to pull off the world-record deal this summer… and Rant’s for being so presumptive. Then again, with United’s squad balance very much dependent on the completing the transfer, there are a lot in the proverbial basket.
Around £100 millions worth, wouldn’t you say?