There are two Manchester United teams this season. There’s the team that performs well away from home in the league and comes up with incredible performances in European competition, as we saw in their thumping 5-0 win against RB Leipzig. There’s also the side that puts in insipid performances against teams that they should be beating, which has resulted in their poor standing in the Premier League table as we begin November. There’s one crucial difference between these two teams, and it’s Paul Pogba. It might be a bold statement to make when we’re barely ten games into the new season, but Manchester United seems to win when Pogba’s on the bench and lose when he starts games.
The “Pogba problem” at Old Trafford is a difficult one to solve, but it isn’t new. Previous manager Jose Mourinho, who’s now riding high in the league table with his new side Tottenham Hotspur, famously fell out with the Frenchman during his time with the Red Devils. Alarm bells rang with a few United fans at the time, but the club’s record signing got the benefit of the doubt. The general consensus that Pogba was ill-suited for the defensive football that Mourinho wanted him to play, and that a new manager playing him in the correct position would get far more out of the mercurial midfielder. Having paid so much money from him, the majority of fans wanted to see the player stay at the club and make a greater combination going forward. He may not enjoy that same level of support today.
Pogba was absent for the majority of last season through injury, and therefore missed most of the club’s triumphant post-Christmas run, which saw the side take an against-all-odds third place in the table and secure Champions League football. The team played so well that, for a time at least, the fact that Pogba’s return to Old Trafford had largely been a disappointment was forgotten. The prospect of a fully-fit and committed Pogba playing alongside Bruno Fernandes in the team’s new-look midfield was a tantalizing one, and fans hoped for an even better season this time around. So far, it looks like they’re going to be disappointed. Pogba is fit and playing again, but based on his form, it might be better if he wasn’t.
The problem that current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces when trying to slot Pogba into his starting eleven is similar to the problem that gamblers face when they’re trying to conjure the best possible line of symbols in a slots casino. This metaphor might work better for United’s great rivals Liverpool, who remain the only club in world football to have their own online slots game, but it still applies. A high-value symbol is only useful in an online slots game when it combines with other high-value symbols to produce a payout. In isolation, it’s worth nothing at all. Pogba’s qualities are undoubted, but his ability to combine with the players around him and produce jackpot results is starting to look doubtful. If this really were an online slots game, Solskjaer would surely want to spin again. In football terms, spinning again means gambling on a different lineup and leaving Pogba out in the cold.
The midfielder has looked unsettled in Manchester for most of the past three seasons. When he does take to the pitch, he looks uninterested. When he isn’t on the pitch, he’s either making unhelpful comments on social media or openly admitting that he’d like to play for other teams. Last season he intimated that he’d like to play for Real Madrid before his career comes to an end. This season he’s saying the same thing about playing for Barcelona. If Pogba really does want to move to Spain, the best way to secure such a move would be by playing so well that he puts himself in the shop window. His form thus far this season indicates that he has no interest in doing that. Pogba has been slow, ponderous, and at times an outright liability. The penalty he gave away in Manchester United’s recent insipid 0-1 loss at home to Arsenal is his third during Solksjaer’s tenure as manager. No other player has given away more than one.
For now, publicly at least, Solskjaer is standing by his man. He points out that Pogba is still working his way back from injuries and also a recent viral infection and isn’t yet firing on all cylinders. Privately he must be wondering whether he’ll ever be able to get the best out of a player who’s only ever consistent in his inconsistency. A fully engaged Pogba can change games and improve teams, as we saw in France’s run to the World Cup in 2018. That version of Paul Pogba has never shown up for Manchester United. Clubs who intend to compete at the top end of the Premier League table can’t afford to carry passengers, no matter how much money was spent on their seats. With Fernandes now the lynchpin of the team and Donny van de Beek waiting in the wings, questions have to be asked of how long Solskjaer can continue to tolerate the situation. If he persists with Pogba and Pogba continues to let him down, the Norwegian’s job might be on the line.
This is a pivotal moment in Paul Pogba’s career. He’s currently 27 years old and ought to be in his prime. His current contract with Manchester United runs until the end of the 2022 season. If United keep hold of him and keep trying to make this work for the next two seasons, he’ll probably walk away for nothing at the end of that contract. There’s little reason to suspect that his performances will improve significantly between now and then. If Solskjaer truly wants to clear the decks and stamp his own image on this struggling United sign, one of the best ways to do it might be to cash in on Pogba now and use the money to buy players who want to play for the shirt. It would be a sad ending for what ought to have been a perfect homecoming for Pogba at the club that taught him his trade, but fairytales often fail to work out in football. His reputation might recover at another club, and most United fans would be glad to see the back of him.