Manchester United’s Paul Pogba problem is about to resurface

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The stadium announcer in Gdansk clearly agreed with the majority of Manchester United fans in thinking Marcus Rashford had played a poor game. He erroneously announced his name when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer belatedly made his substitutions in extra-time — introducing Daniel James — rather than the man who was coming off, Paul Pogba.

Rashford came out fighting in front of the TV cameras after the penalty shootout defeat to Villarreal with an impassioned speech about the progress United had made under Solskjaer

It was jarring to see the usually meek and mild Mancunian in such an abrasive mood. Maybe he was compensating for his listless performance in attack against Villarreal.

But Rashford wasn’t alone in underperforming under the lights in Gdansk and Pogba was hardly undeserving in getting hooked.

It was a generally underwhelming performance from the Frenchman on the kind of stage he’s lit up in the past. Ander Herrera claimed the Man of The Match prize when United won the Europa League in 2017 with victory over Ajax, but Pogba scored and was influential in that game. A year later, he was bossing the World Cup final in France colours.

And it appeared he was saving his best United displays this season for the key knockout ties, having impressed in the Europa League earlier rounds against AC Milan and Roma. He’d been nigh-on unplayable against his old adversary Jose Mourinho in United’s best league win of the season, 3-1 away at Tottenham.

But Pogba being Pogba always means the odd fallow period is around the corner. He blows hot and cold, and this was the worst possible time for the 28-year-old to go quiet — not just because it meant the Europa League trophy eluded United in agonising circumstances.

All the talk after the final was whether David de Gea had played his final game in a United shirt, Juan Mata too. But it’s not unfeasible that this was Pogba’s last dance as well.

It seems to have been largely forgotten that Pogba is heading into the final year of his United contract, amid the strongest of hints from his agent Mino Raiola that he may well be leaving. Pogba has enjoyed a decent season at United — among his strongest in five years since returning to Old Trafford — but the appetite to move on has always been there, simmering in the background.

Whether United choose to cash in, or leave Pogba’s contract to run down to its expiry and lose him on a free in June 2022, is now more of a dilemma than before.

Losing a big European final should always mean more rearranging of the furniture than if it had been won. There appeared to be a near universal agreement from supporters that keeping a rejuvenated Pogba for an extra year was worth taking the financial hit.

 

Now with the player aged 28, still with some resale value, and Solskjaer indicating the squad needs freshening up this summer, what should United do?

Do they keep Pogba for a year in the hope he can fire them to that long-awaited league title? Or do they sell, reinvest and target someone like Declan Rice? Pogba’s performance against Villarreal may have already given the club a clue.

 

United’s transfer need is in defensive midfield, where Rice could challenge Fred and Scott McTominay for a spot, and they’re well stacked with Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek in attacking midfield.

In that regard, Pogba has always been the odd one out, and should be of no surprise that his positioning emerged as a major headache for United once again after Gdansk. Solskjaer took a gamble playing Pogba next to McTominay against Villarreal, dropping Fred. He then belatedly returned to the strategy that has largely worked this season, and put Pogba out wide. By then United were fatigued and the game was already meandering towards penalties.

It feels relevant that this question over Pogba’s best position still hasn’t truly been answered, at a time when United will be asked what to do with their maverick World Cup winner.

In 2018 the whispers about Pogba’s future were first heard. In 2019, they clung onto him amid interest from Real Madrid. In 2020, covid-19 and Pogba’s injuries ensured he remained at Old Trafford.

In 2021, the answers may finally be forthcoming.

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