LONDON – The reason Paul Pogba joined Manchester United in a world record £89 million transfer last summer is the same as why he left Old Trafford for Juventus as an 18-year-old in 2012) — Mino Raiola, his agent.
Raiola is probably unperturbed his client has been OK at best for United this season, though most Reds fans consider the France international a waste of money who should have been dropped long ago.
Seven months into his United career, Pogba has underperformed, is overpriced and, like his agent, overpaid even if there is an argument none of these is the player’s fault. In 28 Premier League appearances he has scored four goals, contributed three assists and has been shown seven yellow cards. When you cost a world-record fee you are not expected to have the same amount of cautions as goals and assists.
Pogba left United five years ago and the club received £800,000 in compensation from Juventus. The teenager thought he deserved more first-team games, and while Ferguson was reluctant to lose a midfielder with such potential, Raiola proved to be the main player.
Ferguson said: “There are one or two football agents I simply do not like, and Mino Raiola is one of them. I distrusted him from the moment I met him. He became Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s agent while he was playing for Ajax and eventually he would end up representing Pogba.”
Raiola pushed the move to Juventus through with both client and agent benefiting handsomely, but the real payday was to come when Pogba returned to Old Trafford with Raiola pocketing an incredible and — to everyone except him — unjustifiable and undeserved £14 million. Yes, £14 million for negotiating the transfer of a player Juventus was happy to sell and United wanted to buy. One suspects midnight oil did not have to be burned.
At Juventus, Pogba excelled on the left side of a 4-3-3 formation, benefiting from the overlapping runs of Patrice Evra while playing alongside the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio helped the youngster considerably.
In contrast, Jose Mourinho does not seem to know how to use Pogba or what his best position is. The 23-year-old has been used as a deep-lying midfielder alongside Michael Carrick though he has been pushed further forward recently to a more attacking No. 10. Pogba still looks a square peg in a round hole and Mourinho must find a way to incorporate him within a system that suits the player because when you sign someone for that amount of money, you have to make him fit.
The truly great players very rarely have poor games. When you watch Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski or Antoine Griezmann, the chances are they will live up to expectations. Even in defeat they will show moments of individual brilliance that underlines their class.
Despite being the world’s most expensive player, Pogba is regularly living down to expectations as he struggles to make an impact with United, which is forcing Mourinho into fantasy praise. After yet another anonymous display in the 1-0 F.A. Cup defeat by Chelsea on Monday, Mourinho said passenger Pogba was the best player on the pitch. For most observers it was difficult to think of a player who had been worse.
Two days ago, Pogba was substituted after sustaining a hamstring injury in the 1-0 win over Rostov, which saw United reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League. When he was replaced by Marouane Fellaini, hardly an Old Trafford icon, the inevitable tweet from United fans was that the Reds could win the match now that they had 11 players.
It is unthinkable United could sell Pogba because it would be a public admission by Mourinho that he got it badly wrong, words that the Portuguese cannot bring himself to say. Whatever Pogba’s future, Raiola is guaranteed another mind-boggling payday at some time even if he may have to settle for a humble £7 million next time around.
Drought continues: The Premier League is the world’s richest and even the smaller clubs are awash with money from lucrative television deals. It has, in Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino three of the most successful coaches in European football.
Yet as the Champions League reached the quarterfinal stage only Leicester City, which showed Claudio Ranieri the door and handed over the reins to his assistant Craig Shakespeare, survived. Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham had fallen by the wayside, underlining the demise of English clubs at Europe’s top table.
Between 2007 and 2011 it is almost true to say the only teams who could beat the English were other English teams. Over the last five seasons the quarterfinalists by country have been Spain 15, Germany nine, France six,England three, Italy three, Portugal two, Turkey one. In the past four seasons the entire Premier League has provided four Champions League semifinalists, the same number as Atletico Madrid alone, a club whose resources pale against the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid not to mention England’s heavyweights.
The reason for English failure is because our teams have forgotten the art of defending. Atletico, under Diego Simeone, take it as an insult if it concedes a goal. Last season’s winner, Real Madrid, let in just six goals in 13 matches. In the group stages alone Arsenal conceded 10, Manchester City eight and Manchester United eight.
Rafa Benitez led Liverpool to two Champions League finals on the back of sound defensive organization, while assistant manager Carlos Queiroz’s influence at United should not be underestimated as Sir Alex Ferguson’s more pragmatic approach in Europe was crucial to the Reds’ 2008 success. When Chelsea won the Champions League four years later, it did so with a miserly defense.
That was then. These days when our best come up against opposition that plays high-possession football and can counter-attack with speed, too often English sides are found wanting. On Tuesday, Manchester City was torn to shreds by a young, athletic Monaco side whose decisive goal came from a free-kick headed home by the hugely impressive Tiemoué Bakayoko, a basic defensive error that had Guardiola clearly incensed.
The Premier League has the cash and the coaches. However, its Champions League representatives must recover the lost art of defending if Guardiola and company are to rule Europe again.
Revolving door: A quarter of clubs in the top four divisions of English football — 24 out of 93 — have changed managers in the last three months. Warren Joyce was the latest casualty, leaving Wigan after four months.
It is staggering that any ex-player can have the appetite to be a manager when the chances of lasting even a season are slim going on non-existent.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.