How Manchester United prioritised keeping Paul Pogba – Samuel Luckhurst
In muggy Miami, two of football’s biggest kingmakers rendezvoused for breakfast on the last day of July. The Floridian friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid last year also set up a friendly meeting between Ed Woodward and Florentino Perez as the Premier League transfer deadline loomed.
Perez informed Woodward Madrid would sign Thibaut Courtois, providing United with the reassurance they would not receive another belated bid for David de Gea. Raphael Varane was mentioned in passing as Jose Mourinho pushed for a central defensive addition yet his valuation had inflated on the back of a triumphant World Cup.
Later that evening, Woodward was filmed frantically catching up with Jose Mourinho in the mixed zone of the Hard Rock Stadium. The home of the Miami Dolphins was hosting a shark but Mourinho did not get his kill. Varane was worth more than the £100million United were prepared to offer.
United’s pre-season had become fraught after Mourinho unloaded in The Big House in Ann Arbor three days earlier. Woodward missed that and jetted in for the final leg of United’s pre-season tour, but the impressive 2-1 win over Madrid did little to improve Mourinho‘s ‘bad mood’, as a United player put it. Like the Miami skyline, the gloom remained.
Mourinho enjoys such a friendly relationship with his former employer Perez it seems inconceivable his name was not mentioned during that business breakfast with Woodward. The Mourinho biographer Diego Torres has already reported there is an agreement for Mourinho to step into the Bernabeu breach this season if Perez exercises his trigger finger again on Zinedine Zidane.
As conspiratorial as it sounds, it might partially account for Perez remaining cool on Paul Pogba. In the summer of 2016, Zidane was lobbying Perez to bid for Pogba yet the Madrid sports daily AS reported Perez had ‘never been Pogba’s biggest fan’. In 2015, Real took the unusual step of releasing a comunicado oficial to clarify they had not submitted a bid for Pogba, contrary to reports in Italy.
If one broached the subject of Pogba a year ago with a United official, it would be met by a nervous laugh. During the Stateside tour, Pogba was on holiday following World Cup utopia and Mourinho was asked to summarise the midfielder’s tournament at his opening press conference.
“I hope he understands why he was very good,” Mourinho justifiably said. He amplified on his remark in a separate interview with broadcasters ESPN.
“The World Cup is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give the best,” Mourinho explained. “Why? Because it’s closed for a month, where he can only think about football. Where he’s with his team on the training camp, completely isolated from the external world, where they focus just on football, where the dimensions of the game can only motivate.
“During a season, you can have a big match then a smaller match, then one even smaller, then you can lose your focus, you can lose your concentration, then comes a big match again. In the World Cup, the direction of the emotion, of the responsibility, of the big decisions, is always growing up.”
Mourinho felt the knockout format fed the ‘concentration of the player’ and Pogba felt ‘that extra commitment with a country, with the people’. As fair as the analysis was, from Pogba’s perspective it was ego-driven and ambiguous. Eg. “They play for the team, and only for the team, and the team is the most important thing.”
Panacea for the tension between Mourinho and Pogba would have been for marquee manager to appoint marquee player the new United captain. Mourinho had identified Pogba as the captain midfield recruit in 2016 and could have capitalised on the nirvana of France’s World Cup win.
Only that was anathema to a manager who had discovered Pogba was knowingly offered to Manchester City in the new year and whom he regarded as ‘selfish’, as Mourinho described Pogba to a senior United player. “Jose hasn’t helped himself,” a senior United source said at the time.
United did not back Mourinho last summer but indirectly backed Pogba. The Zidane speculation – and it was only just that – in the wake of an unsatisfying window empowered Pogba and compatriot Anthony Martial, who went AWOL during the tour after his partner gave birth to their son Swan. United defied Mourinho to open discussions with the wantaway Martial in August and that emboldened United’s French connection.
The indulgence of Pogba has intensified since and it was not a coincidence Mourinho checked out of The Lowry Hotel two days after ‘His Excellency’ was unused in the defeat at Liverpool. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the coach whom gave Pogba his reserve and Old Trafford debuts and said four months before he replaced Mourinho he would build a team around Pogba. Solskjaer has shown the ‘heart of gold’ nothing but unwavering support.
Solskjaer released a bodyline delivery at the WACA Stadium in Perth last month by suggesting there was a ‘media agenda’ against Pogba, less than a week after his agent Mino Raiola declared he was ‘in the process’ of engineering a transfer.
In a private room inside United’s opulent Crown Towers hotel and away from the cameras, Solskjaer was niftier in his delivery with us daily reporters.
“Paul said he wants a new challenge – is that personally upsetting to you?”
“No,” Solskjaer replied. “I’ve not been upset by anything he’s said because we’ve had many conversations and I know exactly what Paul is thinking. I can give him a new challenge.”
United did not need Newcastle to demand £50m for Sean Longstaff to value Pogba at £180m and that was never going to elicit a serious offer from Madrid. Solskjaer was understood to be unhappy Zidane had publicly flirted with Pogba and retaining United’s most talented player took precedent over recruiting a new midfielder.
There were untrue whispers Pogba had told United he would not play for them again in the build-up to the Chelsea match, which would have contrasted with his exemplary professionalism in Australia and Asia. Romelu Lukaku received more column inches than Pogba on tour and his sole minor transgression was when he was asked to do a second take during a commercial shoot. “F*****g hell,” Pogba bemoaned, before joking at his prima donna outburst.
United declined Real’s invitation to take Gareth Bale off their hands or nibble at the Christian Eriksen bait Tottenham‘s dangled in front of them, mindful it would present an opening for Madrid to make a serious push for Pogba.
When Solskjaer‘s honeymoon period was petering out back in March, United were adamant Pogba would stay and no amount of money could force them to sell. That stance never changed in the summer.
Woodward was not called for another meeting with Perez.