The one that got away

by Charles Pulling

POGBAIn your mind’s eye you can almost picture the scene that would have been unfolding at Old Trafford on the evening of September 2nd this year. The long warm stretch of summer evenings – where David Moyes and new chief executive Ed Woodward would have sat out contentedly on a veranda safe in the knowledge that time was on their side – all but gone, having been replaced with the slow ominous draw of autumnal darkness. Within the dark, deserted corridors of the Theatre of Dreams a shard of light escapes from one of the executive offices. From within muffled conversations.

Inside there is Moyes, sat at the desk from which so much of Manchester United’s legacy and stature had been controlled from by his predecessor. It feels as if there is precious little control in the room at this moment in time. Etched across Moyes’ face is pain and confusion – how did it come to this? Fergie made it all seem so effortless! What are we going to do? Across the room and equally exasperated  Woodward – sleeves rolled, brow furrowed – hangs up on a phone call silently. He gets up from his chair and moves across the room, rubbing his temples. In front of him is a large board made of cork. It looks much like that used by ‘Major Crimes’, Baltimore’s elite detective unit from the television series “The Wire”. Except there is no ‘Stringer Bell’ or ‘Slim Charles’ mug shots tacked to the board.

The pictures are all more familiar faces. Cesc Fabregas, Fabio Coentrao, Thiago Alcantara, Leighton Baines, Ander Herrera all look back into the room smiling. Woodward picks up a red maker pen and, with an unsteady hand, puts a red cross through the last picture, thus completing the set. He tosses the pen on to the table and turns to Moyes who sits forward with his thumbs seemingly bearing all the weight his head is carrying. “Phone Goodison” he tells Woodward, “Make the deal for Fellaini”.

Fast forward 24 hours and a smiling Moyes is presenting Marouane Fellaini to the assembled press as his marquee signing for his inaugural transfer window as Manchester United manager. The following hours and days would see a cacophony of hang-wringing and analysis of the red devils transfer dealings – ‘Are Moyes and Woodward up to it?’ ‘How could have it gone so wrong?’ ‘Is Fellaini the right player to bring in?’. All rather unfair questions in this writer’s opinion. You see the player Manchester United needed to have in their squad was one that up to two years ago actually wore number 42 for Manchester United. A player whose departure was presided over not by the so-called ‘out of his depth’ David Moyes, but by his illustrious predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson. That player is Paul Pogba.

If there has been a player who so fits in to the Fletcher-shaped hole in United’s midfield it is Pogba. More than that he would actually re-mould the hole to the point where it would have been rechristened the ‘Pogba role’ much in the fashion of the ‘Viera role’ at Arsenal. Comparisons with the Highbury legend are both obvious and not without merit. This is hugely complimentary to Pogba considering he has barely entered his 20s. Both midfielders being black and french is only one part of it. It is also the physical likeness Pogba draws to the World cup winner – both are tall, strong and athletic. To see Pogba bounding forward with the ball one would be remiss not to be reminded of the long strides of Viera surging through Premier League midfields.

However this is where the comparison falls somewhat short. Not for Paul Pogba, but for Viera. You see whilst blessed with certain physical similarities, the 20-year olds technical ability far outshines that of the ex-Arsenal captain. Infact a comparison to Emmanuel Petit in terms of skill and deft touch would be much more accurate. For such a tall individual (6.3ft incase you were wondering) Pogba possesses the touch of a footballer much more commonly found at the Xavi end of the height scale. Not only can the youngster muscle his way onto the ball he can instantly transform from ball-winner to creative fulcrum in an instant, his skill allowing for a quick through-ball or simply sees him beat his man with trickery.

His main attribute (as if those mentioned weren’t enough) is what makes him, to borrow a phrase from American football, a triple threat. And it is the skill that has probably garnered his most attention world wide via youtube and Serie A highlights packages. On the end of both his legs are feet – unremarkable enough, somewhat a pre-requisite for playing professional football. It just so happens that his two feet happen to be, in terms of shooting, intercontinental ballistic missiles. To help quantify my point here is a Pogba scoring twice with his right foot vs. Udinese and one with his left vs. Lazio (around the 30 sec mark).

So just to summarise, goalscoring prowess with both feet, aerial dominance, technique and finesse and the physical attributes to influence the game. The complete midfielder. Which begs the obvious question, why did Manchester United let him go to Juventus? That is the $1 million question, or more accurately the £30 million question – that would be the minimum Manchester United would have to pay to regain his services. That is if Pogba would agree to go back – he has stated publicly that he wants to stay “forever” at Juventus – a fanciful prospect in agent driven modern football. However his love for Juve may actually give us a glimpse into why he left Manchester United in the first place.

Ferguson stated at the time of the player’s departure that a deal between Juve and Pogba was agreed “a long time ago as far as we’re aware”. Yet nothing seemingly was done to dissuade this from happening. Financially Manchester United would have been well able to beat any offer from Turin. Perhaps they weren’t willing to. Pogba was alloted three senior appearances whilst at Old Trafford. Ferguson, perhaps hedging on the return of Fletcher, was reluctant to give Pogba the starts he so desperately craved. Contrast that to his assimilation into a ‘starter’ for Juventus in his debut season and the reasoning for his switch becomes a tad clearer. There was certainly monetary considerations – there always is. But the lure of first team football – Champions League football no less – and simply feeling wanted more by Conte’s Juventus may have proved alluring enough for Pogba to switch.

Whatever was Juventus’ gain will almost certainly be Manchester United’s loss. Paul Pogba is undoubtedly on the road to greatness for both club and country. And though the arrival of Fellaini at Old Trafford will no doubt supplement Manchester United’s midfield one can only cast an eye over to Turin and think of what might have been.

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