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How much can really be determined by a football club’s pre-season? As Manchester United prepare to face neighbours City in China, and additional friendlies with Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray, it seems as if more eyes are trained on Jose Mourinho’s remaining transfer business than what his team do on the pitch.
They overcame Wigan Athletic on Saturday with the ease you would expect and there were comfortable debuts from Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan but United fans could be forgiven for not getting carried away just yet. After all, they enjoyed an exciting pre-season after Louis van Gaal arrived, and could barely believe their eyes when Angel Di Maria and Falcao arrived within days of each other.
It promised so much.
So talk of Paul Pogba is welcomed with a divide. The first thing that ought to be addressed is the suggestion this is not how Manchester United do business. That, of course, is nonsense. This isn’t how Sir Alex Ferguson would have done things? It’s exactly how he would have done things. It’s what he did when he signed Karel Poborsky in 1996, Jaap Stam in 1998, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001.
When they signed David De Gea in 2011. When Shinji Kagawa joined from Dortmund in 2012.
Regardless of what came before with the player in question, Manchester United have had a track record of being in the market for the top young players on the continent. What changed over the last decade which meant those blockbuster signings happened on a smaller scale? The quick and easy answer is the nouveau riche clubs, Chelsea and Manchester City.
It’s why United struggled to get Michael Essien and Eden Hazard. Why they had no chance of getting David Silva. United had become hamstrung by the club’s ownership and it was a testament to the greatest manager of all time that they continued to compete. They had money, but they could be blown out of the water by clubs who were desperate to elevate themselves to the top level.
Since David Moyes was sacked in 2014, it was very clear that somewhere within the club it was conceded that in order to compete with other top teams, United had to dig deep within the cash reserves which have been pumped full thanks to marketing deals which, like yesterday’s announcement with Virgin and Richard Branson, at the time seem hard to stomach. But, when it comes to being in the market for a player like Paul Pogba, they’d be quite happy to see a Richard Branson-esque announcement every day of the week.
It’s why the talk of a £100m transfer fee matters little to them. It doesn’t matter that the truth of the matter is that Paul Pogba was never going to stay at Manchester United unless he was given a guarantee that was given to nobody else in the club. It doesn’t matter that it is reported he left for peanuts to Juventus. It doesn’t even matter if Pogba would see a return to Old Trafford as a stepping stone in a career that will see him eventually end up at Real Madrid.
Because he has been identified as the player Mourinho wants now, and if they manage to acquire him, it will be a statement of intent that will wake up the entire Premier League. Yes, it will be for money, but Chelsea and Manchester City can afford him. If Pogba returns to England, it will be to United, because he will be sold on the assurances of Mourinho to have a team built around him. What better way to really fulfil the gargantuan ego of a prodigious young talent than to tell him you’ll do what he felt ought to have been done in the first place?
There’s a more obvious subplot and it speaks in the language of pounds and politics. At United Pogba will be elevated to the level which rewards his potential - and it still is potential. It puts him in a strong position to then be given the kind of astronomical figures associated with the best stars on the planet when it comes to time for renewal or that move to Spain. Of course, the temptation to move to Spain may well prove too much this summer, but if he has a dilemma, it will be that of profile and wage. It also gives Mino Raiola that same amount of time to infiltrate the transfer dealings of the top clubs in the world in the same way that Pedro Mendes did. It’s easy to do that with United at the moment because they require his assistance.
There remains a doubt whether Pogba can fulfil his potential. His below-par performance in the European Championships final was compared to that of Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko but it was clear that Didier Deschamps was more reserved and restrictive - read, disciplined - with the Juventus midfielder than he had been earlier in the tournament. He retains the potential to dominate top level games but it remains just that - potential. Raiola’s preference will probably be for Pogba - the upcoming jewel in his stable who will be the diamond once Zlatan Ibrahimovic retires - to go to United, where he will hopefully blossom under Mourinho’s tutelage into the top player in the Premier League.
And then he will hold all of the cards when it comes to dealing with Real Madrid, a club he has openly criticised in the past.
Manchester United supporters are aware of all of this but they don’t care, and on this occasion, would probably turn a blind eye to the probability that long term, they are being used. Because they know they are using Pogba and Raiola too. There is a fair argument to say that if Mourinho had taken over at Old Trafford at Christmas, they may well have competed for the title with the squad they have. The smart acquisitions in terms of manager and players will place United in a strong position to compete this season, with or without Pogba. The French midfielder may well make them favourites. As long as Pogba is signed by Mourinho and becomes the final piece in the jigsaw that their manager has made public, they won’t care how it happens and for how much.
But that’s the football, isn’t it? And what happens to dictate the chances of success of teams competing the prizes from now until kick off on August 13th is everything but.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.