There was a moment, in the aftermath of Manchester United’s embarrassing season-ending 2-0 defeat to Cardiff City in May 2019, when a group of supporters let their feelings known to Paul Pogba.
Match-going United fans nearly always keep their counsel about players, even in the most dire circumstances, but after watching their side lose to Neil Warnock’s already-relegated Bluebirds, a group in the Stretford End gave Pogba a torrent of abuse. The Frenchman was among a group of United players doing a ‘victory lap’ – that in itself was probably inadvisable after a trophyless season in which they finished sixth – when he was targeted.
As the MEN wrote at the time: “Clips on social media showed a small section of supporters specifically criticizing the 26-year-old and indicating that they no longer wanted him at the club. Pogba stood topless looking back at the frustrated supporters and appeared to gesture an apology to the stand before making his way down the tunnel. “
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A few weeks later Pogba was quoted, while on an Adidas tour of the Far East, as saying he fancied a “new challenge” and his United future appeared in serious jeopardy. At that stage, he had two years left on his United contract (the club later triggered an extra 12 months), Real Madrid were circling, with Pogba’s idol Zinedine Zidane as manager, and United might even have raked in a profit for his services di he.
Despite the acrimony between Pogba and supporters, he was eminently sellable that summer. He’d enjoyed a strong 2018/19 season, scoring 16 goals – a career-best return – though he’d been central to Jose Mourinho’s sacking, a time of huge upheaval at Old Trafford. There was a sense that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ‘cultural reset’ needed to move on without Pogba.
The club dithered and they’ve paid a heavy price for such indecision. Pogba got injured, Bruno Fernandes arrived, Covid happened and the player was then pretty much unsellable until the summer of 2021.
Now, a general sense of apathy exists around Pogba at Old Trafford, to the point where supporters directed their wrath elsewhere as United were beaten 1-0 by Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night. Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford were lambasted far more than Pogba, even as the midfielder labored around the pitch trying in vain to make an impact against Diego Simeone’s side.
The fact Ralf Rangnick didn’t start him was barely a talking point, and when Pogba arrived as a second-half sub he was completely ineffectual.
The tie passed him by, just as virtually his entire United career has passed him by. Even Pogba’s fellow countryman and France 1998 World Cup legend Marcel Desailly has stuck the boot into the midfielder, labeling him “lazy” and “a cheat” with regards to his work rate di lui. Ex-United defender Paul Parker deemed him “a flop, an inconsistent flop”; there have been numerous other damning verdicts on Pogba’s time at Old Trafford.
Rangnick, like most United fans, is more than aware that Pogba’s exit on a free transfer this summer is now inevitable. The player and his intermediaries have turned down offers of a new contract at every turn and Rangnick even admitted Pogba could put himself in the shop window with displays between now and May.
United haven’t even seen that kind of upturn in Pogba’s performance levels. So as the club approach what now appears a daunting mass exodus in the summer – with up to 17 of the current squad potentially seeking exits – the rebuild should be overseen by Rangnick and it should start with Pogba.
His talent is undoubted. But his inconsistency di lui has become a symbol of a chaotic Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and the two must part ways quickly, in a decision that should foreshadow the nature of the rebuild ahead.
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The writing was on the wall a long time ago. United weren’t ruthless enough, they weren’t brave enough. Now, as Pogba prepares to finally pack his bags and leave for free, Rangnick must fire the starting pistol on a proper reset.
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