News analysis

Football: Man United fell for middleman's wheeling and dealing

Towards the end of last season, a senior figure at Manchester City mentioned that the club had gone cold on Paul Pogba. Why? "Because the figures are ridiculous," he said. "Seriously ridiculous."

This was City, the nouveau-riche club previously derided for knowing - or inflating - the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Pogba was admired among the City hierarchy, not least by Pep Guardiola, but not at a purported world-record transfer fee and not with the wages and all the add-ons proposed by Mino Raiola, the player's agent.

Manchester United were making the early running on Pogba and City were happy to leave them to it, convinced that ultimately the demands of Raiola and Juventus would leave their rivals frustrated.

Chelsea, another club previously synonymous with transfer-market excess, came to the same conclusion about Pogba, even though Antonio Conte, their incoming manager, had enjoyed working with him at Juventus.

Pogba is a high-class footballer, far more talented than his fitful form in United's colours this season might suggest, but every aspect of that deal was inflated beyond comprehension.

Chelsea signed N'Golo Kante for £30 million (S$42.3 million), City signed Ilkay Gundogan for an initial £20 million.

Real Madrid had shown a strong interest, encouraged by Zinedine Zidane, their manager.

But the Spanish club, hardly known for their restraint in the transfer market, decided that "Operation Pogba", as their favoured media outlets had excitedly called it, did not make sense.

And then there was one. United, their desire for more power and quality in central midfield more than matched by their desperation for another marquee signing to heighten their global commercial appeal, remained obsessed by "Operation Pogba".

There were endless complications, not least over the ownership of his image rights, but, through it all, Ed Woodward, United's executive vice-chairman, insisted the deal would be done.

It would be more than a transfer. It would be a statement of intent, a deal that would send shockwaves through world football.

It did - and nine months later, the shockwaves are continuing with the allegation that Raiola, the Dutch-Italian agent, will earn (in the loosest sense of the words) £41 million from the £89.3 million deal.

Even by the standards of a game that has lost all sense of value - and in many cases values - these are obscene sums of money.

Pogba is a high-class footballer, far more talented than his fitful form in United's colours this season might suggest, but every aspect of that deal was inflated beyond comprehension.

It was inflated by Raiola's hold over Pogba and thus over Juventus and, ultimately, by United's eagerness, nay desperation, to pay sums that even Chelsea, City and Real felt were wildly excessive.

"You have to go to the club that needs you," Raiola explained to the Financial Times in October, when asked why Pogba had joined United, a team still in an uncomfortable state of transition, rather than Barcelona or Real, or indeed rather than staying at Juventus.

The Pogba deal has worked out wonderfully for Raiola. Has it worked for Pogba? Not yet, you would have to say.

His form has been erratic in a team struggling to establish a sense of identity and direction. He will hope to finish the season as a Europa League winner, as a League Cup winner, but it cannot have escaped his notice that Juventus reached another Champions League final, their second in three seasons.

There is every reason to think that Pogba will perform better next term, with a restful close season behind him. In some ways, though, that is not the issue. The issue is that his agent will be paid £41 million from the deal.

For all the attempts last August to portray it as an emotional, sentimental homecoming for a player who had been in United's youth team a few years earlier (only to leave, funnily enough, after Raiola infuriated the club with his wage demands), it is rather difficult to sugar-coat it when you realise what the agent, the driving force behind the deal, was getting out of it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'United fell for middleman's wheeling and dealing'. Print Edition | Subscribe