TWO Frenchmen went to Old Trafford. One arrived with a suspect temperament and departed as a king. The other turned up as the prince of Turin and left with a suspect temperament.
Manchester United cherished Eric Cantona, but failed Paul Pogba. It is a tale of two football clubs. Same name. Different psyche. Cantona flourished in a nurturing environment. Pogba floundered in a destructive relationship that could only end in bitter separation.
Strangely, the Red Devils realised early on with Cantona that they had signed a maverick a little out of step with conventionality and reacted accordingly, but Pogba is very much a conventional footballer in the social media age. His employers were left looking out of step.
Remember the classic stories about King Eric? Roy Keane tells the one about Cantona turning up in trainers and jeans, standing among a squad of club blazers and Sir Alex Ferguson remarking, “ah, well. He’s French.”
While Lee Sharpe’s popular anecdote involves Cantona’s infamous karate kick. After the game, as Sharpe tells it, Ferguson tore into every player in the dressing room for shambolic performances before getting to Cantona. Referring to the Frenchman’s attempt to decapitate a Crystal Palace fan, Ferguson allegedly remarked, “Er, you can't really do that here, Eric.”
Maybe the stories are apocryphal, to a degree, but Cantona was granted a special dispensation to accommodate his irreverent personality – and the occasional physical assault - but Pogba was castigated for haircuts and emojis.
Even earlier, during Pogba’s first United spell, Ferguson’s latitude for wayward Frenchmen had reportedly given way to an obstinate determination not to accommodate Pogba or his late agent Mino Raiola. Ferguson later conceded that he and Raiola were “oil and water”. There was no compromise.
Pogba and Raiola wanted assurances of more first-team appearances in the future. Ferguson wasn’t interested and United gave away one of the world’s brightest young midfielders - for free. This week, the club again gave away the World Cup-winning midfielder - for free. Lessons have not been learnt.
Unlike Cantona, Pogba’s relationship with United never reached a mutually beneficial middle ground, often feeling like a one-sided marriage of convenience. The club undoubtedly took advantage of his social media outreach - 53.7 million followers on Instagram, another 10 million on Twitter – without reciprocating with a squad that his pedigree warranted.
Unlike Cantona, Pogba’s relationship with United never reached a mutually beneficial middle ground, often feeling like a one-sided marriage of convenience.
When he arrived for a £90 million (S$155 million) fee, Pogba was expected to hoist a declining institution upon his shoulders and return the Red Devils to the summit – with Morgan Schneiderlin and an ageing Bastian Schweinsteiger beside him. United’s record signing found himself cast in the Nicolas Cage role, an obviously superior talent expected to work with - and elevate - the substandard material around him.
Cantona needed only five years to reach the position of club icon. After six years, Pogba still didn’t have a fixed position. Too many managerial changes, tactical tweaks and a wildly erratic transfer policy made it difficult to fully utilise a World Cup winner.
At the 2018 World Cup final, Pogba had N’Golo Kante’s unstoppable engine beside him. In the 2015 Champions League final, the Frenchman was sandwiched between Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. Such distinguished company eluded him at Old Trafford.
Instead of running United’s midfield, Pogba became a running joke for pundits. The man with no named position. Was he a holding midfielder? A silky No.10? Did he read between the lines or break them? What was the point of Paul Pogba?
United followers were right to be exasperated. They’d seen the footage of the fearless Pogba, gathering his France team-mates during the World Cup final, rallying them, inspiring them, leading them to victory. Where the hell was that guy?
He was where he wanted to be with France, first among equals, gracing a pitch with Blaise Matuidi, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé. He belonged, just as he did at Juventus. Across his four, title-winning seasons in the Serie A, Pogba played 72.6 per cent of Juve’s domestic minutes, according to ESPN. At United, he managed 59.8 per cent of the Premier League minutes in six seasons. Injuries played a part. Confusion, indecision and despondency arguably took care of the rest.
Juventus’ tactical consistency adapted to Pogba’s obvious strengths. He played deeper, won possession and moved forward quickly, knowing he was protected by either Pirlo or Vidal. When he switched clubs, he had to adapt to United’s obvious weaknesses.
At Old Trafford, he played all positions in a midfield three. He was used in a double pivot, pushed out to the left and shoved forward as a No.10 to answer every panic-stricken call from desperate managers. He was less a footballer than a fireman.
And he allegedly sulked. There were too many below-par performances. He fell out with managers. His agent intervened. The media sniping became tiresome until the ignominious end surprised no one. Pogba was viciously abused by his own fans. Both deserved better.
The kid from United’s academy made more than 200 appearances, picked up two trophies and left us with moments: the opening goal in the 2017 Europa League final, the defiant double in the Manchester derby victory of April 2018 and the lovely chip at the San Siro last year. But consistency was rare in so many inconsistent line-ups.
Along the way, the endearing character appeared to fade, the giggly, popular one at the training ground, gatecrashing interviews and mocking Zlatan Ibrahimović’s ego. He succumbed to the wearying drudgery of the current United experience. He disappeared.
And Erik ten Hag must now find another. United’s latest manager needs a dominant midfielder and an uplifting presence in the dressing room, i.e. what Pogba has been for every other team, except United; the bitterest irony of all. What a waste.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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