It’s no secret that Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid covet Paul Pogba. On the surface of it, if a move can happen it should be an ideal transfer given his upbringing in football royalty starting under Sir Alex Ferguson and continued at Juventus under the eye of midfield great Pirlo and the excellent Marchisio.
But it’s not just about upbringing, Paul made his name as a technically capable player able to seize the momentum in a game by either making a defense-splitting pass or scoring a long-range blinder.
After succeeding at Juventus, he became a hot commodity that United snapped back up to make the leader of their midfield. Over at Madrid with Luka Modric’s time soon to come to an end, and Toni Kroos’ soon to follow, how much sense is there for Los Blancos to splash unprecedented cash to make him the next midfield general?
Assessing Paul’s time at United
In England, Pogba has not quite won over either fans or the wider media. Touted for great things due to his transfer fees and performances at Juventus, it seems he has not quite convinced yet.
Due to turn 27 this season, he should be entering his peak and not still be fielding questions about his value to the team. It did not help that manager Jose Mourinho and he did not get along too well with Mourinho critical of his commitment and work ethic on the field.
Yet he has put up respectable numbers if you look at statistics and was a key player in France’s successful pursuit of the World Cup. How does one unravel this enigma and analyze a potential transfer from Madrid’s perspective?
Unpacking subtleties in Pogba’s career
The first argument I make is about Mourinho himself. He is not a manager known for standout success with developing midfield or attacking players. Over at Real Madrid, one of the best midfielders to have ever played for Madrid i.e. Luka Modric ended up being voted the biggest flop of the season during his first year under Mourinho’s tutelage.
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We also know that Jose prefers more workmanlike players rather than ones who provide joga bonito. If you look at the midfield greats that Mourinho lauds and succeeded with, you’ll clearly see a trend: Lampard, no magic but so so efficient. Essien, a tank that would just not stop running. None of those descriptions exactly inspire one to jump up in their seat.
The second has to do with United and the place the club finds itself in. Undergoing a terribly botched up rebuilding job since Sir Alex left, the squad has been constantly imbalanced and coaching appointments have been uninspired.
In general, times have been incredibly tumultuous on and off the field and those are not conditions for any player to learn their game and improve. At Madrid we know these conditions very well when we ourselves failed to develop several great talents during our own period of upheaval during the Galactico era and the brief Calderon disaster.
Robinho and Drenthe are just two players who fell through the cracks during this period and both promised much more than they managed to deliver.
Paul has hence found himself in an unsettled team with an imbalanced roster and no senior influences to set culture and take responsibility on the field. Add to that you had a demanding coach notorious for championing only the short term, whose only really earned success with more developed players, you are setting young players up for failure by giving them too much to do on and off the field.
No matter how talented a player is, being able to either be withdrawn from play if the going gets tough or be able to pass the ball to a reliable player are important options to have to keep a player from getting too exposed while they’re learning.
Prognosis for Real Madrid
If we can agree that Pogba has suffered from being in the wrong environment without sufficient protections to create the conditions for him to thrive – then he becomes a really attractive prospect. His talent has never been in question and with France he has shown how good he can be in the right conditions.
He keeps conjuring moments of magic for United which are surrounded by bad moments where he holds onto the ball too long or finds himself out of position. In theory if you give him passing options, and as you would with most younger midfielders: coach him on improving his positioning – isn’t it a no brainer?
Unfortunately, this decision requires a lot of thought because United are in no mood to sell him at a fair price. His contract has time to run and despite wanting to leave this summer United did not relent for a second demanding 200m for him which would make him only second to Neymar in terms of cost. Given that forward attacking players always tend to fetch the highest fees this would be an unprecedentedly high amount to ask for a midfield player.
Once you consider that the plan Zidane has for him might be to play him in a similar role as he does for France i.e. in a pivot the fees become even more ridiculous. You would not be spending on a Neymar like or even Hazard like transfer where you expect a high number of G+A. It is hence this writers opinion that we should not continue to pursue this transfer unless the price can be brought down much closer to the 100m mark – something around 120m.
While it does stand to reason that Pogba is perhaps the most talented midfielder around in his age category. He would also be more likely to hit the ground running due to his increased maturity compared to a much younger player, the prospect of spending this much money is daunting. If you spend like this you cannot have a player who even has the slightest chance of not coming good. With Pogba unfortunately you see a player struggling to showcase the basics at United.
Yes, I do believe his environment has been wrong and continues to be such but taking a financial risk this big would not allow for remedial actions to be taken in midfield if he fails to realize his potential.
It is due to this factor that I see him more as a possible expensive white elephant rather than our next midfield great. One thing that Perez has consistently done is spend big money on big players but therein lies the pertinent point – he has never spent like this for a player who was not fully proven.
In fact, our last experiment with comparatively bigger money on an unproven player was with James and that has not yet worked out.
Treatment for the prognosis
The only scenario where I see this move as feasible is if the player decides to take things into his own hands and negotiates an exit with United for the betterment of his career. His nice guy approach clearly failed this summer and unless he can convince United to be reasonable we should keep our distance.
Even at over 100m we would be taking a risk – but one that we could financially stomach if things do not work out – and that in my view is a risk worth taking on promise of him being able to iron out his flaws. If he does there is no reason for him not to become a Real Madrid legend.