Manchester United are hoping Paul Pogba’s acquisition for a world-record £89.3m represents the beginnings of a power shift whereby they no longer have to accept that the world’s top footballers consider the Spanish giants a more attractive proposition.
As Pogba clocked into Old Trafford for his first day as the most expensive footballer in the world, the club’s hierarchy are heralding his arrival as hard evidence that the Glazer family, for all the criticism and hostility they still attract, have re-established United at the front of the transfer market, capable of showing the same kind of financial muscle as Real Madrid and Barcelona and willing to take them on in a way that did not always happen in previous years.
The decision-makers at Old Trafford hope it will change the dynamic between Europe’s superpowers given that Pogba’s signing has been described as a watershed moment, being the first time in the modern era that one of the world’s more coveted players has preferred Manchester when an alternative offer was proposed by Madrid, a club who famously tend to get their own way when there is a player they want at the Bernabéu.
Pogba was offered the choice of either club and United know from past experience that La Liga’s top clubs are generally considered more attractive than those in the Premier League given the number of players such as Ronaldinho, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale who have turned them down in the past to move to Spain, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo’s determination to wear Madrid’s colours when he was part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team.
Madrid have spent several months trying to persuade Pogba to do the same and the fact that the Champions League winners had Zinedine Zidane, one of the legends of French football, attempting to win over a current France international has merely heightened United’s satisfaction after a drawn-out process that involves three years of background work from Ed Woodward, the club’s executive vice-chairman.
Woodward set out early in his reign, having taken the role in 2013, to develop a strong working relationship with Mino Raiola, Pogba’s notoriously difficult adviser, and there is little doubt he has used that to good effect during an extensive period of negotiations that has brought two of the agent’s other clients, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, to Old Trafford this summer.
Raiola, to use Ibrahimovic’s description, is “completely fearless and prepared to pull any number of tricks”, and his involvement goes a long way towards explaining why it has taken so long for United to negotiate a way through the various complexities of Pogba’s five-year contract, including a separate image-rights agreement plus all the various tax issues and the agent’s multi-million-pound fees, widely understood to have set a record within his own profession. Raiola and his lawyer, Rafaela Pimenta, have been formidable opponents like no others United have encountered in recent years.
In comparison the negotiations between United and Juventus have been relatively straightforward. The structure of the deal was argued out in the course of two meetings between Woodward and Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus president, both of which were strategically held away from Turin and Manchester to avoid more publicity. The two clubs get on well and United were led to believe from an early stage that Juventus were willing to do business as long as the price was right.
David de Gea’s decision to remain in Manchester, heavily influenced by Louis van Gaal’s departure and the arrival of José Mourinho, has further strengthened United’s position bearing in mind Madrid’s long-standing desire to recruit the Spain international goalkeeper. The defender Eric Bailly’s arrival from Villarreal means United have signed all four of their transfer targets before the season starts, in stark contrast to some of their more disappointing summers since Ferguson’s retirement, and the fact that has happened when the club cannot offer prospective new signings Champions League football is being seen within Old Trafford as a significant victory. That does not lessen any embarrassment about the fact they let Pogba leave as a free agent four years ago – his grievances at the time relating to his lack of first-team opportunities and the relatively low pay on offer – and some awkward questions clearly remain now new information has emerged about United’s scouts encouraging the club to re-sign him within 12 months of his move to Juventus.
However, the decision not to offer Pogba better pay in 2012 was taken by a different regime, with David Gill as chief executive and Ferguson the manager, and the player clearly does not hold a grudge. On the contrary it is said not to have featured at all in any of the discussions. United have seen it as an advantage that Pogba still has friends at the club as well as in the city.
What United have been able to offer is a stable environment, a serial trophy-getter as their manager and a newly assembled side that will begin the season as genuine candidates for the Premier League title.
While Madrid have a formidable pull of their own, as the 11-time European Cup winners, the feeling at Old Trafford is that several factors made this a rare defeat for the Spaniards. First there is the fact that Pogba would have been joining a club who are facing the probability of a one-year transfer ban. The presidential elections tend to create more instability at the Bernabéu and Pogba, as Mourinho has alluded to, would inevitably have been in Ronaldo’s shadow. It also helped United’s cause that the player is fond of Manchester, knowing better than to be put off by the traditional lines about damp weather and the lack of a beach.
For United that means a happy ending to a chase that might never have been necessary had Pogba’s first spell with the club not unravelled so acrimoniously.
Ferguson once claimed the Frenchman had left Old Trafford “not showing us any respect at all” and the lingering bad feeling certainly counted against Pogba when David Moyes was in charge.
Pogba was available for £65m at the time but Ferguson’s successor was led to believe the player might always have a restless streak. What did it say for his personality, Moyes wondered, that he wanted to leave Old Trafford at the age of 19 and had spent much of his time at Juventus apparently contemplating another transfer?
Van Gaal was another admirer but decided the money would be better spent elsewhere whereas the difference is that Mourinho, having tried unsuccessfully to sign Pogba for Chelsea last summer, was absolutely adamant that this was the player he wanted more than anybody else.
“He looks like a kid who is back to his old school finding people he cares about and who love him a lot,” Mourinho said of his new player. “After a couple of days he will feel like he never left the club.”
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