Rewind the clock to the start of 2020 and it looked set to be a very big year for Paul Pogba. A move from Manchester United in the summer seemed increasingly likely, but only after he had played a central role in France‘s attempt to add the Euro 2020 title to the World Cup won in Russia two years ago.
The second part of Pogba’s grand plan was taken off the agenda two months ago when UEFA postponed the Euros until June 2021 as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to affect all aspects of society across the world. But with football still locked in a cycle of uncertainty and financial panic due to the outbreak, the first element of Pogba’s big year could also be taken off the agenda and it may ultimately lead to him extending his stay at United rather than cutting it short.
The transfer battle for the 27-year-old involving Real Madrid, Juventus and United had all the elements of a summerlong saga — a player who wanted to move, two superclubs fighting for his signature and United, a financial giant, refusing to be bullied into selling for anything less than their £120 million valuation. But the financial impact of the coronavirus on football has changed everything — a reality spelled out this week by Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge — and it will directly affect what happens next with Pogba.
“I’m convinced there will be an impact in the next summer transfer window,” Rummenigge said on a Zoom call with journalists on Wednesday. “I’m listening to many colleagues in Spain, in Italy or in England. Everybody has to take care of their financial situation.
“I’m hearing that many clubs would like to give players on the market to sell and there are not so many clubs able to pay in cash or to fulfil the demand and requests of these clubs. I believe prices will go down and maybe salaries as well.”
None of Rummenigge’s forecast is good news for Pogba. Up until football was suspended in March, the midfielder had made just eight appearances for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team — and none since December — due to a persistent foot injury. Pogba’s fitness and future became a source of irritation to Solskjaer, who made clear his frustration with the player’s agent, Mino Raiola, in a number of public comments, to which Raiola responded with outspoken remarks of his own.
The January arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon, in a deal that could reach €80m, then seemed to edge Pogba closer to a move away, with the Portuguese midfielder making an instant impact at Old Trafford and offering United a clear vision of how they could survive and prosper without their most high-profile player.
But the shutdown has changed everything for United and Pogba. The financial concerns cited by Rummenigge have left the Frenchman with nowhere to go. Reports in Italy said that Juventus have installed a self-imposed salary cap of €9m-a-year (£7.9m) on new signings — which is just over half of Pogba’s £15m-a-year wages at United — while Real Madrid’s players have already agreed pay cuts of between 10-20% while the shutdown is in place. If Pogba wants to move and earn the same salary he currently enjoys at United, he will find it impossible to do so in the current climate.
Yet even if Solskjaer and United had decided that this summer was the time to cash in on a player who cost £89.3m from Juventus in August 2016, they will discover that no club is capable of stumping up £120m, with so many doubts about how football will be able to generate finances if, as feared, stadiums must remain empty for the remainder of 2020.
Indeed, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward delivered just such a warning last month, when asked about his club’s summer transfer plans. “It feels somewhat inappropriate to see speculation about transfers for hundreds of millions in current circumstances,” he said. “There’s a big disconnect between those stories and the economic realities facing football clubs in general.”
This summer was not simply about Pogba wanting to get away, though. It was also the peak time for United to sell. Pogba’s deal expires in June 2021, with United holding the option of a one-year extension, so he actually has two years left on his contract. However, for United to get anything like market value for Pogba, they had to sell him this year to avoid being left in the difficult position of negotiating a fee for a player who could instead run down the final 12 months of his contract and leave for nothing — even agreeing a free transfer to a foreign club as early as January 2022.
Perhaps United and Pogba had both accepted that this summer would see them part ways, but now, it is an option that simply doesn’t work for either party. Which leads to the scenario which seemed impossible earlier this year: handing him a new contract.
From their own business perspective, United need to protect the value of their asset, so a new deal for Pogba makes sense. In terms of football, he may divide opinion, but there is no question that United’s squad is stronger with Pogba in it, so Solskjaer would unlikely be opposed to holding onto a world-class midfielder.
From Pogba’s perspective, he could sit tight until he is 29 and see his career remain on hold for another two years — after barely playing during the 2019-20 season — before seeking a free transfer in 2022. Or, he could commit to helping Solskjaer lead United out of the wilderness and spend the best years of his career at Old Trafford with a lucrative new contract in his pocket.
The problem is, neither United nor Pogba has a perfect option right now. For both parties, though, the least worst may be a new contract.