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It underlined so much about the state of Manchester United when their FA Cup win in May wasn’t greeted with the kind of optimism one might expect.
Comparisons to United’s 1990 triumph and the avalanche of trophies which followed it were made more tongue in cheek by supporters who were not convinced that anything greater would follow under their manager at the time, Louis van Gaal. And yet those same supporters, while relieved at the news that Van Gaal was sacked in the wake of the 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace, were also dismayed at the apparently classless way their club had gone about their business once again, after the sacking of David Moyes two years prior.
That would be forgiven and forgotten, though, if the board had planned better than they had for the two prior changes of manager. Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford was one of football’s worst kept secrets but there was a tangible pessimism until it was confirmed, such was the lack of preparation that seemed to surround the previous appointments. That both Moyes and Van Gaal were left scrambling to over pay for players in the last days of August underlined much of what was wrong with United’s approaches in 2013 and 2014.
So, naturally, there was concern this time around. But Mourinho had clearly been working hard in the months out of employment as three big transfers were wrapped up with relative ease. The signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been discussed in this column previously and the point is worth repeating - this is a player who may well have come to United without Jose Mourinho being the manager, but, considering that there was little chance of the Swede turning up to Carrington if Van Gaal had remained in charge, we have to accept that the identity of the boss means at least something.
There can be no questioning the influence of Jose Mourinho in the announcement that United have broken the world transfer record for the first time in their history when they re-signed Paul Pogba from Juventus for a reported £89m. Without his overtures - and without, it must be said, the somewhat political moves for other Mino Raiola clients - we probably wouldn’t be talking about Pogba moving to Manchester United.
But we are, and that in itself presents a number of further questions.
The first one is the cost - is he worth the money? Today, that answer isn’t solely determined by what the player does on the pitch. For the next year at least - unless something absurd and remarkable happens in the next three weeks - Pogba will be known as the most expensive player in the world. United were able to make that signing with no Premier League title since 2013 and no Champions League final since 2011, with just one campaign in the competition in the last 3 years (including the forthcoming one). It is a demonstration of their power within the English game, a reminder and a flexing of the muscles if it was required. Is he worth the money, well, even if he does well, there will be critics who will suggest he wasn’t. That’s barely the point. The key way to phrase that question is, is it a gamble Manchester United can afford to make? The answer, taking into account all of the marketing that comes along with the transfer and the re-sale value, is an emphatic yes.
It also raises another suggestion. Have United, in completing this transfer, done the unthinkable and usurped Real Madrid for the second time in a year? It will arguably be as much down to the Premier League as it is the club itself, but after retaining David De Gea, signing a player that Madrid were openly interested in is another incredible move.
Cristiano Ronaldo was 24 when he made the world record move to Spain in 2009. So was Gareth Bale. You got the impression that Real Madrid would have preferred to have waited a year anyway, because their sense of signing Pogba wasn’t one of emergency, but it was the kind of move where they would have been forced to act, and for once, they were priced out of the game. For a club where money has been no object for 15 years, it is a compelling moment. If we are to follow along the lines of the political Raiola theme - one suggested in my previous column - then it stands to reason that in three or four years, Real Madrid will come calling. Maybe even in two seasons, with United agreeing with Pogba to keep him for a third and allowing him to leave afterwards.
But a lot can happen in two years. Yes, it is unlikely that Pogba’s record will be broken in the near future, but take a look at the incredible fees spent in August alone. Manchester City have got little change out of £70m and there is no way of knowing - at the time of writing - whether Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus will even be definite starters in a squad packed full of attacking talent. This was an area they spent £100m reinforcing last year, too.
Players will continue to move for obscene amounts of money because the Premier League has enjoyed a bonanza and the ripple effect could be felt over the continent for years to come. If the world’s best players come to the Premier League, if United can fulfil what is now expected of them over the next few years, then who is to say that the talk of Pogba fulfilling his potential at the club over the next decade is just lip service?
Make no mistake, United have no hiding place this season now. They cannot buy the players they have for the prices they have paid and expect not to be favourites. Manchester City might have the more balanced squad - that is a matter for argument - and will challenge that tag of favourites, but if the title doesn’t return to Manchester this season, it will be an embarrassment for both clubs.
The expectancy for those at Old Trafford will now be that they will be Champions next May. Their moves in the market next summer will be fascinating if so, because that will be a summer where they will seek to exert their apparent superiority over Real Madrid in the transfer market- a summer where we might learn if the order of the supposed top tier of clubs in the world will be upset and changed. For so long it has been Real Madrid and Barcelona - what might it mean for the future of British football if the Paul Pogba transfer has propelled Manchester United into that mix?
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’.