Saturday was not the nadir of Paul Pogba’s season. It was not even in the bottom five. Leicester away, Atalanta away, the catastrophic cameo against Liverpool, Atletico Madrid away and Tottenham at home were all worse.
Bruno Fernandes was worse against Norwich. His already dismal form of him has nosedived since he received an unnecessary and untimely salary hike and it was Fernandes’s carelessness that prompted Manchester United supporters to chant ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. At least two United matchgoers of 50-odd years had never heard that aired by United followers at United players until Saturday.
Fernandes should have been hooked instead of Jesse Lingard, visibly vexed by his harsh withdrawal. Alex Telles, a player with seemingly no interest in how United fare as long as he gets his quota of games to stay in the Brazil squad, barely perspired on a day so sunny it could have been mistaken for August.
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In the first-half, Pogba quickly went viral with a trap-and-nutmeg the nearby Fernandes applauded. United were cruising when ahead and so was Pogba. Not long before Pogba was withdrawn, he won the ball on the edge of his own area, dribbled past another opponent and sprayed the ball to Telles to start a counter-attack, deservedly earning a round of applause.
Last month, Pogba complained: “At United, do I really have a role? I ask the question and I don’t have the answer.” Whatever his role is, it is not defensive midfield, never mind the sole holding midfielder. That risky remit backfired against the Premier League’s competition winners from the Championship.
Ralf Rangnick protected the benched Nemanja Matic with Anfield in mind, especially if Scott McTominay and Fred are still unavailable. Still, plumping for Pogba at the base of midfield was illogical. Fernandes is such a sloppy passer someone has to hold the fort for the transitions and United have already conceded as many league goals as they did last season.
Once Norwich scored, Pogba became the problem. For Milot Rashica’s shot at 2-2 that David de Gea dexterously tipped wide, Pogba was inside his own half and ambling back towards goal while two Norwich players sprinted towards United’s penalty area. They both ended 15 yards ahead of him.
“Paul Pogba was beaten so easily,” said co-commentator Leon Osman. “Norwich players are flooding forward.” Harry Maguire outstretched his arms, demanding to know where the defense’s minders were. Matic soon came on.
The south-west corner of Old Trafford used to be the family stand and now it is the polar opposite, what the Western Terrace is to Headingley. They were responsible for the ‘standards’ banner bearing the faces of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane. They were the supporters Pogba cupped his ear to at full-time.
It was near those militants that Pogba played a loose pass to Telles from a throw-in. He soon had the ball facing his own goal from around 25 yards out and attempted to freestyle his way out of trouble, only to be dispossessed. While Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford were stood on the touchline, Pogba feebly lost a challenge with Pierre Lees-Melou.
The next time the ball went dead, Pogba’s number was up. First, there were cheers. There were boos as Pogba strolled off. Then the repeated chanting of ‘f–k off Pogba’. Pogba’s English is excellent and he grinned broadly at the playlist shuffling on the terraces. It is telling that ‘f–k off Pogba’ is the only dedicated chant Pogba has earned from the matchgoers.
The abuse was a manifestation of Mino Raiola offering Pogba to Manchester City in 2018, Pogba reveling in the sacking of Jose Mourinho on Twitter, publicly seeking a transfer in 2019, Raiola expressing his sorrow at not engineering a transfer, the mid-season jet- setting and Raiola repeatedly driving a wedge between player and club without Pogba denouncing his comments.
The only surprise is it has taken this long for matchgoers to audibly turn against Pogba. He remonstrated with a handful in the Stretford End after the listless defeat to Cardiff at the end of the 2018-19 season but Saturday was one of the most poisonous atmospheres at Old Trafford in living memory and the protesters had warned the players were also in their cross hairs.
United never received an acceptable offer for Pogba in 2019, a summer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described him as having ‘a heart of gold’ and suggested there was a half agenda. Solskjaer never took the bait Raiola dangled and his handling of Pogba was tactful. In retrospect, it was soft and aligned with Ed Woodward’s starstruck strategy. The Covid-19 pandemic scuppered any possible transfer in the last two years.
Given how tone-deaf United are on social media, maybe they thought Pogba’s popularity was rivaled only by Cristiano Ronaldo. You did not have to look far for Pogbaholics expressing their support on Saturday and the United account expressed ‘strength in unity’ when Pogba condemned a report he had blanked Solskjaer after the thrashing by Liverpool.
Pogba has been marooned at a club he does not want to be at for the best part of four years. Dissertations have been submitted on why he excels so frequently for France yet doesn’t for United when the succinct summary is Pogba is committed to playing for France. He has not been truly committed to playing for United in the last four years, at the very least.
Pogba will leave this summer, three years too late. His closest teammates of him were of the opinion it was in the best interests of all parties that Pogba goes as far back as Solskjaer’s first full season. He has remained popular inside the dressing room and continues to enjoy positive interactions with supporters, despite Saturday’s flashpoint.
That was the nadir of his United career.