Football: Pogba must first be up for a challenge

If there is even the slightest surprise among Manchester United's supporters at Paul Pogba's latest utterance, it can only be at his choice of words. A "new challenge"? It implies a sense of engagement that has been in little evidence over the past three years.

Perhaps a "new stage" would have been a better way of putting it. Pogba has always seemed to regard Old Trafford as a stage rather than a place to challenge himself week in, week out.

When the mood takes him, as it did for a couple of months after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho as manager midway through this season, his talent shines through. All too rarely, though, has he appeared willing or able to embrace the challenge of leading the resurgence that United so badly need.

Before and after returning to the club as manager, Solskjaer spoke of wishing to build a team around the France midfielder, but the player himself does nothing to encourage such a notion. The talent is obvious, but the commitment to the cause is not.

He and his agent, Mino Raiola, spent the final weeks of last summer trying to engineer a move to Spain and, after a season that started and finished badly, with a two-month spike in the middle, they are working on an exit plan once more.

Solskjaer and United have a choice: either beg Pogba to stay, which might also mean offering him an enormous new contract, or cash in on a player who sounds less than committed to the cause.

This is not like when Alex Ferguson pleaded with Eric Cantona to stay in 1995 or Roy Keane in 1999 or Cristiano Ronaldo in successive summers in the 2000s. Those players were performing brilliantly (and continued to do so). Pogba's performances over the past three seasons have done little to merit such indulgence.

Solskjaer and United have a choice: either beg Pogba to stay, which might also mean offering him an enormous new contract, or cash in on a player who sounds less than committed to the cause.

On the face of it, Pogba's statistics last season - 16 goals (eight penalties) and 11 assists from 47 appearances in all competitions - look highly impressive. Closer examination, though, gives a clearer impression.

Nine of his 16 goals and seven of his 11 assists came during that two-month spell that followed Solskjaer's arrival. In the months either side of that, he and his United teammates coasted, as though unable to find the motivation to rise to the challenge.

You would be forgiven for wondering why Pogba signed up for this challenge in the first place, arriving from Juventus in what was a world-record £89 million (S$153 million) transfer in August 2016.

His performances for France in last year's World Cup Finals, and for Juventus previously, demonstrate that he can contribute well in a successful team. In terms of style and personality, he appears far better suited to that, than trying to drag this United side out of the doldrums.

Some have argued that Pogba should be given the captaincy in the hope that, at 26, he takes on an extra level of responsibility the way a young Bryan Robson and Keane did. These two, though, were very different and extremely motivated personalities.

Pogba looks like the type who needs to be inspired, rather than inspire others. There has been a leadership void within the United dressing room for the past five years. If he was going to fill it, in any positive sense, it surely would have happened before now.

If United were approaching this summer from a position of strength, the obvious move now would be to cash in on Pogba. The main arguments against such a course of action would be linked to the mediocrity of this squad, the continuing uncertainty over the future of so many other senior players and, above all, the serious doubts about this regime's ability to undertake a rebuilding operation of the size the club needs.

United should not be in a position where any player, let alone an underperforming one, feels that he can call the shots. That, however, is where the past six years appear to have left them.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2019, with the headline 'Pogba must first be up for a challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe