Paul Pogba‘s career reached a crossroads on Sunday.
Right as Manchester United‘s two biggest rivals were competing for the Premier League title, Pogba and his team-mates were falling to an inexplicable 2-0 defeat to already-relegated Cardiff City, at home, on the final day of the season.
A day where no matter the result, the home team is duty-bound to take a lap of the field and show their appreciation for the fans at the end of another campaign.
It’s usually called a lap of honour. But for United on Sunday, it was more a walk of shame.
The France midfielder bore the brunt of it, as he was involved in a verbal altercation with a section of fans ready to shower him with abuse.
It may end up being the moment that pushes Pogba over the edge in terms of his future. Rumours have been swirling this season that he is on his way to Real Madrid, and that plus his listless displays have turned some fans against him.
Compatriot and United legend Patrice Evra said in an interview with Sky Sports on Monday that Pogba is a player who needs to feel the love, and this display of anger from his home fans was certainly far from that.
Pogba was comfortably United’s best player this season. He led the team in goals (16), assists (11), and chances created (89), and if he could speak freely he might say that those latter two numbers could be even higher with better movement and finishing from his team-mates.
Yet it was Luke Shaw who won United’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards. A left-back, considered the team’s best player in a season United conceded their-most ever league goals during the Premier League-era.
Right now, he might wonder what he has to do to get the fans’ love. But Pogba is learning a lesson that several talented players have had to learn before him.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Carlos Tevez was a more loved player among Argentina fans compared to Lionel Messi, simply because he seemingly left it all on the pitch.
Fans appreciate a player whose effort never wanes, even if the overall performance sometimes isn’t up to scratch. And Pogba ranks dead last in distance covered by United midfielders per 90 minutes this season – a statistic in which Juan Mata is the surprising leader and even Nemanja Matic averages nearly a kilometre more than the Frenchman.
Love from the fans is earned.
It’s why Scott McTominay has earned United fans’ applause this season, even though none would argue that he is a better player than his more illustrious team-mate. It’s why many of the United faithful are begrudgingly looking at their fiercest rivals and longing for players who have the work rate Liverpool players show week in, week out under Jurgen Klopp.
Pogba might consider this an unfair metric to measure him by. He knows he’s capable of brilliance.
He’s shown it on several occasions in a United shirt, yet in his best season for the club he’s getting less appreciation than the likes of Shaw, McTominay, or Victor Lindelof, even though the club could be even worse off than the miserable sixth-place finish they’ve managed without the quality Pogba brings to the team.
But just on Sunday, Pogba’s failure to track back as Josh Murphy ran past him allowed the Cardiff player to set up the second goal with relative ease. That’s not the first time Pogba’s lack of effort has cost his side this season.
And if he does go to Madrid, moments like that will only get magnified. The crowd at Santiago Bernabeu is famously merciless.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been whistled and jeered by his home fans, and he’s one of the club’s best-ever players. Scoring arguably the best goal in Champions League history, in a final, to seal an unprecedented third-straight title in the competition, hasn’t been enough to spare Gareth Bale from the boo boys.
If that crowd notices Pogba putting in lackadaisical displays, he’ll have much worse than a handful of irate fans to worry about.
People could argue that tracking back isn’t his game, but that no longer cuts mustard. Apart from Ronaldo and Messi, almost no one gets away with shirking defensive responsibility in the modern game.
Whether United choose to keep him and let Ole Gunnar Solskjaer build around the midfielder, or Pogba forces through an exit from the club, is almost irrelevant at this point.
This is a player who, apart from craving the adulation of fans, also reportedly wants more responsibility. The captain’s armband is supposedly a target for Pogba at United, and may even be offered to him in an attempt to make him stay.
And he certainly talks a good game. Though he can be shrewd in his media interactions, subtly sending messages to Jose Mourinho about the lack of attacking football or to United’s board by talking about teams he could join to challenging for trophies, with contract talks at United upcoming, he’s also quick to put his hand up and acknowledge when he and his team-mates haven’t played well.
Before his altercation with the United fans on Sunday, he was attempting to apologise for the loss to Cardiff.
He’s also the player who delivered the team talk for France in last summer’s World Cup final, inspiring his colleagues ahead of their 4-2 triumph over Croatia.
So Pogba has that side of leadership already in him. But it’s the other side, the one that made Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, and Gary Neville such beloved captains at United, that he still needs to understand.
He may be the best player in his team. But until he can combine his brilliance with the graft that Robson, Keane, and Neville had, the force of personality that those three and players like Eric Cantona possessed, he will always seem a little short of the ideal captain.
The day he pulls that off, he’ll even get to bask in the fans’ love.
Three years after returning to the club from Juventus for a world-record fee, there is widespread talk about the 26-year-old moving on to pastures new this summer.
Real Madrid are strongly interested in a player who was voted into this season’s PFA Team of the Year but has failed to win over a number of United supporters given his efforts across the team’s poor campaign.
Pogba was heckled by some fans after the embarrassing 2-0 home defeat to relegated Cardiff on Sunday, which is thought to have left the midfielder in an understandably bad mood as he made his way down the tunnel.
United have been steadfast in their stance that the midfielder is not for sale, but fans’ favourite Evra cannot help but feel that his former Juventus and France colleague will leave.
“It’s not like I am protecting Paul, but when there are incidents like yesterday (Sunday) with the fan, they are killing Paul,” the former left-back told Sky Sports.
“He has the most goals, most assists. I know you can question his leadership and in the last few games you want more, so that’s why you can criticise him right now, but overall he has been the best player this season.
“Just because it’s Paul Pogba, he has haircuts, he dances, his Instagram and everything, people will criticise him while forgetting the player that he is.
“Only him and (David) De Gea can play in a big team in Europe.”
Asked if he would build a new team around Pogba or whether the midfielder would leave, Evra said: “I think he will leave because you need to feel the love when you play somewhere, you need to be committed.
“If Paul decides to stay another year and then leave, or stay another few years, maybe the fans will love him because he is committed.
“The United fans love you when you say you are committed.
“When I go to the game and I see fans shouting and swearing at players, I am in shock.
“In my time, you can play the worst game of your life and they will clap you. I remember losing 4-1 at home to Liverpool and they were still singing. That’s the United fans I know – they’ve just had enough.
“I don’t talk for Paul, whether he stays or leaves, but when you have negativity around you, you should leave.”
They are eye-catching comments from Evra, who was pictured with Pogba last week and has a close relationship with the United midfielder.
“I advise Paul every day,” Evra said. “We FaceTime, we talk.
“I tell him every day what it means to wear the tracksuit, not even the shirt, just the tracksuit, and what it represents. He listens to me.
“Before he left the club when he was young to go to Juventus, I spent two hours at his house talking to his mother and brothers, saying how Paul can be the new Patrick Vieira at United.”
Evra not only has an association with Pogba but also with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, whose search for a technical director has seen a number of former players linked with a return to United in one capacity or another.
“We talk but I do not think I am ready myself,” he added.
“I sacrificed my life a lot to succeed during all my career and if I want a role in Manchester United right now, then I would have to sacrifice my life all over again. I do not want to be put in a box.”
Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Mark Dempsey will remain part of the Manchester United coaching staff next season, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed.
A challenging Premier League season came to an ignominious end on Sunday as relegated Cardiff won 2-0 at a shell-shocked Old Trafford.
A lot of work is required this summer to improve United’s squad and background set-up, but Solskjaer is happy enough with the coaching staff.
Former captain Carrick and ex-Under-18 coach McKenna joined predecessor Jose Mourinho’s backroom team at the start of the season, while Dempsey came in when the Norwegian was appointed caretaker.
“They are all going to stay,” Solskjaer told United’s official app.
“I think that’s important, that we keep that team going forward. We do bounce off each other and they are some excellent coaches.
“Kieran, with his 32 years of age, you’d think he’s had 32 years in coaching.
“Demps – I’ve worked with him now since 2011 when I moved back to Norway, he came with me to Molde.
“He’s a Manchester United lad through and through, he came through with Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes in that youth team. I think he was captain and he played once for the first team. He knows what this means.
“Michael – what can I say that no-one else knows about Michael? When he came in, it was my last season as a player so I played with him for one year.
“He’s a personality I can really connect with.”
United assistant manager Mike Phelan signed a three-year deal on Friday and goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez has been with the club since Solskjaer’s predecessor Mourinho arrived in 2016.
The 1999 treble hero replaced the Portuguese as United manager in December and shone as caretaker manager, only to struggle to hit the right note as permanent boss.
Solskjaer says this season has taken a physical and emotional toll on his group, but the ups and downs have taught him a lot.
“I’ve learned that I don’t like losing,” he said. “I like winning. We started off fantastically.
“The boys were unbelievable when I came in. We were positive. We won games. The whole group gelled together and I enjoyed winning but I know that football is hard.
“You can’t just expect everything to go that way and the reality hit us. We are in a league with loads of very good teams and, to be at our top (level), we need to be 100 per cent focused.
“We came into some games really, really focused with the full team and I thought that was fantastic.
“Then you learn a lot when you go through tough times and think about ‘who can we build this team around?’ and who we think is going to take the next step because we need to go to the next level.”
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