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Manchester United’s Paul Pogba problem – the story of a £90m mistake with only one ending

If Paul Pogba had his way, he would be back at Juventus as early as January. In fact, he’d probably never have left.

The only reason he went in 2016 was because the £90m was transformative money for Juventus, that they wanted to take the next step. Sources who know Pogba maintain he was never that keen on returning to Manchester United at all, an issue which is at the root of many of the current problems.

Back in the summer of 2016, the midfielder’s order of preference in potential clubs was Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, United and this weekend’s opponents: Manchester City. It is tempting to wonder how different Pogba’s career might have been had a different club signed him. There are some – around both the player and City – who believe Pep Guardiola could have turned him into something closer to Kevin De Bruyne.

Some at United would argue that’s just imagination. They would point to the harsher reality: Pogba is a 27-year-old star coming into the prime of his career, who was signed to be the Old Trafford club’s own transformative player and the totem of a new era – and yet it’s not like there would be much disappointment if he left.

Right now, he’s barely in the starting XI.

Some influential figures now feel his departure might be the best decision for the club. Pogba knows what his decision would be.

Sources aware of the situation say he didn’t know what Mino Raiola was going to say on Monday, but that the comments of his agent didn’t exactly bother him. It’s not like they operate without understanding.

Some feel the situation is now so bad, and that Pogba so wants to leave, that he isn’t even bothered about irritating United any more.

On one side, after the nature of the Champions League elimination, you can understand why the player would not want to waste his best years at Old Trafford. There’s been too much unfulfilled promise. An ability to compete for top trophies is said to have always been a condition of any prospective new contract talks – especially regarding the Champions League. Pogba’s camp can’t understand why you would buy a player for £90m and not build the team around him.

On the other side, there’s the equally fair argument that Pogba hasn’t exactly done much to affect any of that. Nor has he shown he is worth being the absolute focal point.

That illustrates how far apart the two sides are. It does come to something if an agent is as dismissive of a player’s employers as Raiola was and the client isn’t bothered.

“That’s how bad it’s got,” one source says.

Some involved believe Raiola’s interview has been misinterpreted. They say that it was really a message to any buying clubs that Pogba is available now, and the sooner the better. It wasn’t to ‘push’ United, since they are well aware of the situation already.

The problem – for both club and player – is that Raiola may be “too far ahead of the market”.

Most of the superclubs – and especially the big Spanish two and Juventus – are facing huge financial dilemmas due to Covid. Barcelona would sign him, but just don’t have the money. Madrid retain some interest, but only because of Zinedine Zidane, who is said to be the sole senior figure at the club who wants Pogba. Paris Saint-Germain are assessing the situation, but it is Juventus who are by far the most certain.

They want Pogba now, and realise a player swap might be the best way to get it done.

The Turin hierarchy would willingly do such a deal for 1 January. For all the debate about Pogba in England, that discussion just doesn’t exist in Italy. He is still seen as a potential Ballon d’Or winner, and the kind of star that – yes – Juventus can build their team and their future around.

That in itself is pointed, because there’s a player who occupies that status at Juventus now. It is a player United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has long coveted: Cristiano Ronaldo.

Juventus would not be completely against the idea of swapping him for Pogba. Ronaldo is supreme but has a huge gravitational effect on the entire club. The financial commitment he requires means Juventus can’t start the rebuild they badly require, and his playing style means they can’t impose a more collective game – that both Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo have wanted.

Paulo Dybala is another option Juve would like to push, especially since he is in almost an identical situation in Turin as Pogba is at United. There’s general dissatisfaction. It’s just Dybala has never been that keen on United, and United now don’t really need him.

The Old Trafford hierarchy haven’t previously been interested in swaps, either, but the prospect of Ronaldo does make it that bit more enticing. Sources say it isn’t completely impossible, but supporters shouldn’t let their imaginations run wild. For the moment, there’s the same impasse that has persisted for some time.

Some around Guardiola’s side state that the flatness of the early season was actually due to tweaking the physical conditioning so as to better manage what is going to be a gruelling season.

United have enjoyed a supremacy over City in head-to-heads lately but may need more than usual this Saturday. The last two games have proven that is still what Pogba can offer. He changed the game against West Ham United, and then against Leipzig. There’s no denying the midfielder’s talent.

It represents a dilemma for Solskjaer given everything. It’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for the United manager there, given this is a problem he inherited.

There’s also the sense that it is influencing other areas. Dean Henderson is getting agitated about time on the bench, especially given Chelsea wanted him, and there is now the argument he is a more assured goalkeeper than David De Gea. An issue is that, like Pogba, the Spaniard is one of the best paid players at the club. It doesn’t look great to have more than £500,000 worth of weekly wages on the bench.

Strengthening his hand is that the Champions League elimination hasn’t changed his own status. Solskjaer is safe. United generally wouldn’t move unless Champions League qualification is impossible, and there is a feeling there is still a chance of a title challenge this season. The club hierarchy are encouraged by Solskjaer’s win percentage. They feel it is the platform for winning top trophies.

Pogba’s camp don’t share that confidence. It isn’t the only area where there is a difference.

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