So it has finally happened and we can dispense with the “blah, blah, blah,” because Manchester United has signed a marquee player on Ed Woodward’s watch. Old Trafford awaits the return of the prodigal Paul, Monsieur Pogba.
After being led on a wild goose chase by Sergio Ramos and others, who used United’s interest as leverage in contract negotiations, or the option of last resort as was the case with Ángel di María, or a rehabilitation home with respect to Radamel Falcao, the club finally have signed, on merit, a bona fide world star.
Just look at how the transfer unfolded, United expressed an interest in recruiting one of the brightest talents on the planet, financially outmuscled all competition, negotiated with a super-agent and managed to get the deal over the line paying a world record fee to cap everything off.
After three summers of transfer window mismanagement this period has seen the football and business wings sync up to recruit one of the best, not to mention most marketable, players on the planet. Along with Pogba, Woodward and José Mourinho have brought in Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Eric Bailly, with the potential for more fresh faces arriving well before the transfer window closes.
This sudden bout of competency by Woodward should delight United fans. Finally, there appears to be a coherent transfer strategy that’s being executed with a minimum degree of fuss.
While United fans, rightly, celebrate Pogba’s capture, the acquisition should not detract from the club’s amateurism in windows gone by. Nobody expects Woodward to land every single transfer target, but the way the club has been played in previous windows has taught all involved many painful lessons. Chief among them is that a large transfer budget on its own is not enough to ensure that Old Trafford is the first choice destination for the planet’s most talented and celebrated players.
"Woodward has been forced to dance with Mendes and Raiola. Selling United to marquee players on the basis of its storied past is not enough. Even then while Pogba has been brought in primarily for football Woodward would not have sanctioned the outlay if the Frenchman wasn’t marketable."
With the lack of a football director, Woodward has been forced to dance with the devil in the form of super-agents Jorge Mendes and more recently Mino Raiola. Selling United to marquee players on the basis of its storied past is not enough and there’s an argument that Pogba wouldn’t have considered a move to Old Trafford had he not spent the early part of his career with the club.
Dealing with super-agents has a price though – providing a home for their stable of clientele and paying heavy commissions to get deals pushed through. Even Sir Alex Ferguson had his fingers burned when dealing with super-agents: Jorge Mendes facilitated the signing of Tiago Manuel Dias Correia, more commonly known as Bebé. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Woodward was bitten when he dived head first into the shark-infested waters that is the football transfer market.
Some United followers and most detractors argue that the £89 million fee for Pogba is excessive, but then again the top end of the football market is a different level of normal from the average person’s world. If Juventus considers £75.3 million a reasonable enough price to activate the 28-year-old Gonzalo Higuaín’s release clause then the money United shelled out for Pogba, who at 23 has his best years ahead of him, can be argued as a ‘fair price’ in a hyper inflated window.
Even then while Pogba has been brought in primarily for his football talents Woodward would not have sanctioned such an outlay if the Frenchman wasn’t a readily and easily marketable talent. For United fans this is the pill that must be swallowed whenever a marquee name walks through the Old Trafford’s doors. Not only do star names have to deliver on the pitch but they’ll be required to promote the latest Hollywood blockbusters, commercial partners, and even Indonesian pop bands.
Eyes need only be cast in Wayne Rooney’s direction to realise that stars need to shine brightly off the pitch if not on it. The United captain’s football powers are waning, but his box office is still strong as his image is used front and centre on every piece of promotional material and commercial partnership. United’s partners are happy to pay top dollar to have their products associated with the club and its star players. The trade-off having Pogba on the pitch is that he will be used to make United money off it. No surprises there.
That’s the Faustian pact and, let’s not fool ourselves, fans understand modern football’s nature right down to its numerous business models. Most are ready to live with the game’s commercialisation. There will be plenty drawn out transfer sagas too, as agents negotiate the size of their commission in full knowledge of how United makes money. Yet supporters accept, if not fully embrace, this new normal.
Now that Woodward has shown a better understanding of how the window operates and developed a system that, though not foolproof, is bringing players to the club in a more efficient manner.
What shouldn’t go unnoticed is United’s refusal to be distracted by Mino Raiola’s media shenanigans, that of rival clubs and to a point Pogba himself. The club went about its business and chose the opportune time to announce Pogba’s return.
The #Pogback deal shouldn’t make United fans dance in the streets though. First, a club of United’s stature should be able to complete small, midsized and large scale deals without turning everything into a soap opera. Granted big transfers are complicated, as the Pogba deal has demonstrated, but basic competency shouldn’t be celebrated. Second, if fans haven’t reconciled this point already, is the fact that marquee signings are not brought in purely for footballing reasons. If United buys a star the club wants the whole football, marketing and commercial package.
United fans should be happy with the arrival of Pogba as a world-class talent who has chosen Old Trafford as his next destination, and that the club has demonstrated its financial clout and willingness to use it. Indeed, this is the first time since Hernan Crespo moved from Parma to Lazio for £35.5 million back in 2000 that the words “world record transfer fee” and “Real Madrid” haven’t appeared in the same sentence. Possessing the planet’s most expensive player is quite the gem, but a club such as United should no longer be getting burned in the transfer market.
Pogba wearing red again is a reason to look forward to the upcoming season, but a good transfer window complete with a marquee signing shouldn’t be just cause for playing Kool & the Gang.