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Pogback! Can Man Utd flop really rescue his club career at Juventus?

2:19 AM EDT 7/9/22
Paul Pogba Man Utd Juventus GFX

In July 2016, Massimiliano Allegri issued a warning that was clearly intended for Paul Pogba.

"Anyone who has the opportunity to leave Juventus has to consider things very carefully because, right now, Juve are among the top four European clubs," the Bianconeri boss stated.

Sadly, that warning went unheeded.

Even though Pogba's then-agent Mino Raiola had always insisted that his client would only leave Juve at the right time, for the "right project" and the "right team", he instead joined Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.

Essentially, Raiola and Pogba could not have got the most important move of the midfielder's career more wrong.

There were sentimental considerations, of course. Pogba hadn't really wanted to leave United for Juventus in 2012. He felt "Mancunian". He wanted to prove himself at Old Trafford.

So, he was "shocked" by the way in which talks over a renewal collapsed, with Raiola and then-United manager Sir Alex Ferguson clashing during a decisive meeting over the midfielder's future.

Raiola later admitted in an Amazon Prime documentary that he deemed United's offer derisory, telling Ferguson, "For this money, my chihuahua would not walk on the grass of the training centre!"

The Scot's subsequent retirement thus facilitated Pogba's return four years later; but it also doomed it to failure.

  • Paul Pogba Jose Mourinho Manchester United 2018

    The post-Ferguson fallout at United

    United were a club in utter disarray in 2016, still failing dismally to come to terms with Ferguson's retirement three years previously.

    They no longer had one of the greatest managers in football history calling the shots; they had Ed Woodward.

    And, in his desperation to return the club to winning ways, he turned to Mourinho – akin to putting Josep Maria Bartomeu in charge of your personal savings account.

    Mourinho and Pogba's partnership was never going to last long and it was fitting that the former was eventually sacked after putting the latter on the bench for a game against Liverpool.

    Woodward continued to make one recruitment mistake after another, with the net result being that Pogba, who was 23 at the time of his return to Old Trafford, essentially wasted what should have been the prime years of his club career.

    So, here is now, at 29, back AT Juve, hoping to make up for lost time. The problem, of course, is that this is not the same club that Pogba left six years ago.

  • Andrea Pirlo Paul Pogba Juventus 2014

    Juventus have sunk to Man Utd's level

    Juve are no longer among the top four teams in Europe. They may have reached the Champions League final the year after Pogba's departure, but they've not made it past the quarter-finals since.

    Their recent but rapid regression is best illustrated by the fact that they've been humiliated at the last-16 stage for the past three seasons by clubs with far smaller budgets: Lyon, Porto and Villarreal.

    It is no stretch to say, then, that Pogba's exit was a significant event in the gradual weakening of what had previously been one of Juve's great strengths: their midfield.

    When the Frenchman had arrived in Turin on a free transfer from United in 2012, he was surrounded by Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio.

    And while Antonio Conte had convinced Pogba to turn down Arsenal and Chelsea because he would get more first-team opportunities at Juve, it was thought that the teenager's game time would be carefully managed, at least during his first season.

    However, Pogba was playing regularly by the end of the 2012-13 season, his natural physical gifts, outstanding technique and limitless potential obvious from his very first training session with some of the biggest names in world football at the time.

    "He was only young, but we could see he was special," Pirlo later told The Telegraph.

    "We were walking back to the dressing room after the session and I clearly remember Gianluigi Buffon coming up to me laughing and he just said: 'Did they really let him go for free?!'"

  • Antonio Conte Paul Pogba Juventus 2013

    Getting the best out of Pogba

    United, of course, would end up buying him back for a record-breaking £89m – testament to the remarkable progress he made at Juve, first under Conte, and then Allegri.

    Conte even altered his tactical plan just to make room for a prodigious talent on the left-hand side of a midfield three – a move Pogba admitted was pivotal to him first breaking into the France squad.

    Allegri, meanwhile, pushed Pogba even further forward during his final season in Turin to try to get the very best out of his creative qualities – particularly as Juve were slowly but visibly starting to struggle to manufacture openings and control games following Pirlo's move to New York after the 2015 Champions League final loss to Barcelona.

    Not long after Berlin, in fact, Pogba was presented with the No.10 jersey (he's been given the same shirt upon his return).

    It was a very deliberate move on Juve's part, a symbolic show of appreciation, a public attempt to appease him, given talk of a transfer away from Turin was already intensifying (thanks in no small part to Raiola).

    The hope was that Pogba would relish the added responsibility and commit his medium-term future to the club, allowing Beppe Marotta & Co. to build a new midfield around him.

    Instead, he left for United. It was a transfer that made financial sense for both Pogba and Juve, but both parties would eventually be left counting the cost of its timing.


    Juve missed Pogba as much as Pogba missed Juve

    Juve have spent the past six seasons trying – and failing – to find someone capable of bringing the same mix of power, skill and, perhaps most importantly of all, goal threat to their midfield.

    Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would have made for a fine replacement but he never arrived in Turin, for a variety of reasons, from Lazio's reluctance to sell the Serb for anything less than nine figures, to Juve's post-pandemic financial problems.

    There was also the fact that in the same summer Juve banked €105m from selling Pogba, then-CEO Beppe Marotta made an uncharacteristically extravagant purchase, signing Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli for €90m (£77m/$92m) – a controversial transfer that really only worked well for a season.

    Hardly surprising, then, that after Juve took another massive, ill-advised gamble on a forward the year after, Cristiano Ronaldo this time, Marotta quit the club soon after.

    Thus began a dramatic decline in the Bianconeri's transfer dealings, with Marotta's successor and former right-hand man, Fabio Paratici, eventually paying for a succession of shocking signings with his job, in 2021.

    So, while Pogba once teamed up with Pirlo, Vidal and Marchisio in Turin, now, as it stands, he will be mixing it with the likes of Arthur, Adrien Rabiot, Weston McKennie, Denis Zakaria and Manuel Locatelli.

    The latter aside, it's not really a significant step up from the mediocrity he found himself surrounded by at Old Trafford.

    Of course, the fact that Scott McTominay and Fred represented a more reliable midfield pairing than any option involving Pogba tells you much about the calamitous nature of his second spell in Manchester, his lack of versatility and dismal failure to stand up and be counted.

  • Paul Pogba Manchester United Norwich Premier League 2021-22

    'Fuck off, Pogba!'

    Tellingly, and damningly for a player with his vast array of attributes, Pogba only made the PFA Team of the Season once in six years in the Premier League, 2018-19, when he racked up more goals (13) and assists (nine) than any other United player.

    However, aside from a spectacular post-Mourinho purple patch between December and February, Pogba also disappointed under the Portuguese's successor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and then again when Ralf Rangnick took over an interim basis.

    For the most part, Pogba proved nothing more than a source of frustration, which eventually spilled over during his final season at United, most notably in a home game against Norwich in April.

    "F*ck off, Pogba!" screamed several fans on the Stretford end as he left the field amid a chorus of boos after another painfully lacklustre display.

    By that stage, the feeling was that Pogba personified the club's problems as a preening, over-paid under-achiever who was more useful to United's marketing department than the senior side.

    United fans, then, are as glad to be rid of him, as their Juve counterparts are happy to have him back.

    Which perhaps perfectly sums up the polarising nature of Pogba as a player and a person.

  • Paul Pogba Gigi Buffon Juventus 2015-16

    Never go back?

    It's worth noting, though, that there were never any gripes over his character, fashion choices or off-field activities during his time at Juve.

    Former goalkeeper Gigi Buffon described him as a fine trainer and great team-mate, once telling a young Pogba not to worry about external criticism: "You have your haircuts, you dress as you like: it is on the pitch that matters."

    The problem at United, obviously, that Pogba didn't deliver on the pitch for United, at least not consistently.

    That may not have always been his fault, of course; United's issues run far deeper than his perceived failings.

    He – and Raiola – may have contributed to the constant chaos at Old Trafford but he was also a victim of it.

    Perhaps he will have learned from the experience. Perhaps it will have prepared him for what awaits him at Juve. Perhaps re-joining Juve will bring out the very best in him.

    This time, though, the pressure is all on Pogba. There won't be world-class players around him midfield. And there won't be any legends to lean on.

    Pirlo and Buffon are long gone, and long-time captain Giorgio Chiellini has just left, along with Pogba's friend Paulo Dybala.

    Even the club's supposed new leader, Matthijs de Ligt, is ready to jump ship, with the Dutch defender expected to imminently join Chelsea or Bayern Munich.

    De Ligt's exit should raise funds to strengthen the squad – Nicolo Zaniolo and Kalidou Koulibaly rank among their top transfer targets – but Juve are quite clearly in a period of transition, as last season's fourth-placed finish in Serie A underlined.

    They've had three different coaches in the past three seasons and legitimate doubts remain over whether Allegri, with his pragmatic brand of football, is really the right man to restore the Old Lady to her former glory.

    In Dusan Vlahovic, they have a potential star up front, while the return of Federico Chiesa from injury will eventually add a whole other dimension to the attack.

    But, as it stands, this is not a strong Juve squad, product of the club's muddled thinking in the transfer market (the addition of Angel di Maria is particularly puzzling, given the previous emphasis on rejuvenating the roster).

    And the argument has always been that Pogba has only ever truly excelled in strong sides (at club level with Juventus, and international level with France). There is no shame in that, of course. It's obviously easier to shine in stellar sides.

    The truly great players, though, can carry entire teams at times, and that's exactly what Allegri will be asking of him at regular intervals this coming campaign.

    There is an understandable fear, given how things played at United, that he will not be up to the task, at least not in the Champions League, not with this Juve side.

    Still, after the misery of Manchester, it's easy to appreciate why Pogba has decided to go back to Turin, where he was happiest, on and off the pitch.

    But, six years on from his Old Trafford transfer, it is hard to shake the suspicion that once again Pogba has chosen the wrong project at the wrong time...