Sure as night follows day, and spring follows winter, the sweet smell of fresh eight-figure commissions has awoken ‘super-agent’ Mino Raiola from hibernation.
The Machiavellian/maniacal/maverick – delete as appropriate – Italy-born negotiator appears intent on enacting his latest mission; extracting Paul Pogba from Manchester United.
Measured words from the astute, media-savvy and, surely, compliant France centre midfielder during the international break that described Real Madrid as “a dream club for every player” catalysed, as expected, into a flurry of front-page stories in the ravenous Spanish sports press.
Add further propellants from adoring Los Blancos boss Zinedine Zidane and you have all the conditions to light a transfer wildfire.
It’s enough to induce a sense of panic among the Red Devils faithful, breaking the sweet harmony caused by beloved stalwart Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ascension to the managerial dugout.
But is this panic about a #Pogback-door exit from Old Trafford, for the second time, merited?
His golden spell upon Solskjaer’s arrival, as caretaker, from December 22-February 27 delivered a world-class seven assists and nine goals from 14 matches.
This season’s double-digit tally is the first in Pogba’s celebrated career, at the age of 26-years old. Don’t forget, he also provided a strong case to be considered the standout player in World Cup 2018’s sodden final triumph against Croatia.
All signs that point to a premier performer now moving into his prime.
Yet a truculent figure under Jose Mourinho went goalless in the Premier League from November 18, 2017-April 7, 2018. A final-day strike on May 21, 2017 ended another scoreless top-flight spell which stretched back to December 31, 2016.
Not even a deeper role could fully account for this discrepancy.
An ego moving back out of control was evident in the staccato 2-1 victory against Watford this weekend. Self-gratifying flicks and slowdowns on the ball were almost punished several times by hungry visitors.
Reputation and delivery have only intermittently been in tune since Pogba’s then world record £89 million – of which Raiola reputedly banked £41m – return from Juventus in August 2016.
A portion of blame can be attached to the irritable Mourinho and his outmoded tactics, plus man management. It would be incorrect, however, to absolve Pogba completely.
Consistency has not been king for a player aptly described by United great Rio Ferdinand as having the “height and strength of Patrick Vieira and the feet of a ballerina”.
He is world class on his day. And these days have become more frequent under Solskjaer, a mentor he first became acquainted with in United’s reserves a decade ago.
A club that has not won the Premier League since 2012/13 and is back in the Champions League’s quarter-finals for the first time since 2013/14 – thanks to epic victory against Paris Saint-Germain earned in spite of Pogba’s wayward efforts – cannot afford to lose a player of such sublime talent. Surely.
There is the semblance, however, of a new collective being formed under Solskjaer.
England forward Marcus Rashford is enjoying a precipitous rise and fellow attacker Anthony Martial is reborn. Sweden centre-back Victor Lindelof and left-back Luke Shaw look like talents to bank on for the years ahead.
If Pogba does not wish to be part of it, a bold call to get rid at an eye-watering price can be made.
United are flush with cash, possess added allure under Solskjaer and Champions League qualification is still a distinct possibility.
Could Brazil playmaker Philippe Coutinho’s turmoil at Barcelona be brought to end, or Spain’s Saul Niguez apparent wish for a divorce from Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid be granted?
At the younger end of the market, Roma’s emergent Nicolo Zaniolo and Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz are searing prospects to invest in.
An inferiority complex is apparent when Madrid are mentioned in the red half of Manchester.
They were a broken fax machine away, reportedly, from losing Spain goalkeeper David De Gea to them in August 2015, while archaic technology could not come to their rescue in July 2009 when Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo finally succumbed to president Florentino Perez’s substantial charms.
The bodies of work from this pair at Old Trafford tower above Pogba’s.
His summer loss, at exorbitant price, would be a blow – make no question. But it shouldn’t be a terminal one.
It was a contentious issue under previous boss Jose Mourinho, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has hinted he could play star midfielder Paul Pogba in a deeper role – like the one he occupies for France – in order to help Manchester United dominate matches better.
The Norwegian celebrated his first game in permanent charge of the Red Devils with a 2-1 win over Watford on Saturday, but it was a poor performance from the hosts.
They were lucky to take all three points against the visiting Hornets who had every right to feel stung by defeat as they dominated possession (55/45 per cent) and total shots (13/3) and on target (7/2).
Solskjaer, appointed full-time manager days before the game, admitted it was a sloppy performance from his side. And even though predecessor Mourinho was often criticised for not giving Pogba enough licence to attack from midfield, Solskjaer suggested he might replicate the deep role he often plays for France in order to get him on the ball more often.
“Paul is important for us. We couldn’t keep the ball today – 50-50 per cent possession (45-55) at home, you’re a bit disappointed with that,” said the United icon.
“But Paul’s been away, played two games for France, he’s playing a bit deeper for them so that’s maybe something we have to think about, to get him more in the game.
“Paul can do both, he can attack and defend. Today, we had two strikers who did it for us. I thought Rashy (Marcus Rashford) was fantastic – he gave us the energy the others lacked.”
Pogba has thrived more than most at Old Trafford since Solskjaer took over from Mourinho in December, netting nine goals, but the Les Bleus star was largely anonymous in a game in that Watford largely dominated.
Solskjaer bristled at a suggestion United should be concerned by being unable to dominate the Hornets, pointing out that along with Wolves, he believes Javi Gracia’s side are among the best sides outside the Premier League top six.
“Watford are a good team,” he said. “They’re playing the semi-final of the FA Cup, they’ve got some very good players, play well on the counter-attack as well.
“I don’t think you’re giving them respect because they’re a good side. Along with Wolves, they’re the best two teams apart from the top six.
“Of course, you’d like to dominate, but we weren’t able to. We’ve set ourselves targets over the next eight games, now seven games. We came away with a win – that’s great. Everyone knows we can play better.”
Former Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov has given his backing to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the club’s new manager.
Solskjaer, 46, was announced as permanent boss last week on a three-year deal after a successful stint as caretaker.
“As I said before and even before they give him the job, he earned it because the result he achieved, and you see the way the team is playing and everybody stick together,” said Berbatov, who scored 56 times in 149 matches for United from 2008-12.
“I think it was the right decision. Of course now begins the difficult part to keep the job, if you want, because now it’s yours to lose it.
“And the pressure is going to be even more, but it’s always like that at Manchester United. You are in the biggest club, so you need to play and win.”
Berbatov was speaking from a legends match between former Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan footballers, played in a friendly game at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday.
It was the second test match at the new Spurs stadium with the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann, Paul Gascoigne, Rafael van der Vaart, Robbie Keane, David Ginola, Laurent Blanc, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Zanetti also among those taking part.
Their first official match at the new 62,062-seater stadium will take place on Wednesday when they host Crystal Palace in the Premier League.