It feels like an age ago that Paul Pogba was unveiled as a Manchester United player with a music video and his own hashtag.
The first transfer to play out on social media, announced via the Pogba x Stormzy promotional video for Adidas in which the midfielder danced along to a short rap by the British grime artist who happens to be a United fan. The world’s most expensive signing collaborating with a rapper about to explode into superstardom.
It felt like a moment in history, the start of something fresh and new and exciting. The supremely marketable young footballer, who had left for Juventus and become a star, an old face returning home to become the face of the new Manchester United. They had their #PogBack.
On reflection, the way he wriggled and bopped along to Stormzy rapping about being “the one they all fear”, being “man of the year”, “sitting on top” and “looking straight down” and carrying a city on your shoulders was arguably Pogba’s best performance in a Manchester United shirt.
It was certainly in stark contrast to what is likely to be his final contribution in a United shirt, hobbling from the field in the 10th minute of a thrashing by rivals Liverpool with the calf injury that interim manager Ralf Rangnick confirmed on Friday would rule him out for the remainder of the season. Not only was it a game that confirmed Pogba’s exit – it was one that confirmed how far United have fallen behind Liverpool since Pogba arrived.
He was clearly injured, yet the way he bowed out after what must have been 10 excoriating minutes for United players so overwhelmed by their opponents it seemed as though the fight had left him. The culmination of a whimpering end to his Manchester United career in which he managed to start less than 50 per cent of league games in the second half of his time at the club.
From the world’s most expensive to a free transfer in six years. Pogba leaves behind a complicated legacy that will perhaps only be fully understood years down the line.
He will certainly get a move to a big club – people pay a premium for a 29-year-old World Cup winner closing in on century of France caps. Paris Saint-Germain look likely suitors: both parties are aligned in their view of football as an entertainment and lifestyle product rather than a sport. Style is of equal importance to substance; being cool and good at football is better than just being good at football.
Wherever he ends up he will probably win trophies, score important goals, provide exquisite assists, pull off clip-able skills that can be neatly packaged and immortalized and replayed long after he’s retired in YouTube highlights reels.
Perhaps only later will Manchester United fans realized that maybe Pogba wasn’t to blame for their club’s failures. That it was the owners, the executives, the mismanagement, the kiss-arses and career climbers who’ve taken hold of a once-great club like a terminal disease.
Who knows: in five years ‘time they may well reflect that the two trophies, a Premier League runners’ up medal and Champions League qualifications were the best Pogba could have achieved with the club in that time.
And remember, he was signed at a confusing time in Manchester United’s history when they appeared to be chasing social media followers more fervently than they were titles. The 2016 Pogba fitted perfectly.
But he will be remembered for… what? The two goals in two minutes in the 3-2 comeback win against Manchester City at the Etihad that stopped their city rivals winning the Premier League title for another eight days? The goal in the Europa League final against Ajax?
For being Manchester United’s worst signing? Probably not. Alexis Sanchez would give him a good run for that one. But, nonetheless, he will not be remembered fondly. It was always as though the £ 90million price tag was a constant, unintentional personal insult leveled at Manchester United’s fanbase.
Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson was right when he let Pogba, one of his academy’s most exciting prospects, leave for Juventus in 2012. Ferguson always believed that no player was bigger than the club and it clashed with Pogba’s perception of what he could become. Or maybe football has merely moved on from Ferguson’s time than him.
That said, walking away on a free transfer for the second time points to player who considers himself above the club he plays for. But can you blame him? He’s shared the brunt of the blame for the mediocrity that’s set in like rot at Manchester United in the post-Ferguson era.
And if his final match ended meekly, his final one at home was humiliating: booed from the field by his own supporters following an uninspiring performance against Norwich City, cupping his ears to the loudest section of the Old Trafford crowd when he drew close.
It was as though he was asking them: why is it always my fault, no matter what happens?
Some of the criticism has been warranted, some unfair. Particularly certain television pundits’ absurd obsession with his occasionally flamboyant haircuts when the team lost. But that was all part of the Pogba brand.
In the end, maybe the symbiotic relationship of ever-increasing popularity Pogba and Manchester United craved was the very thing that meant it was doomed to fail.