Act One, in which a protracted transfer saga drags through an entire summer.
Everybody loses, even supporters of the pursuing club. Days pass, one update becomes indistinguishable from the next, and a deal groans gradually into being. To be fair to Paul Pogba and Manchester United, at least this one actually got done. Ordinarily, these melodramas are conducted without the guarantee of a pay-off; like the Christmas season without the 25th December.
“No, Football Fan, you have not been good enough this year. That isn’t a world-class forward under your tree, it’s a novelty sized Toblerone. In fact, there isn’t even a tree – this has all been for nothing.”
Pogba did actually move to Old Trafford and so, grudgingly, we must concede that there was purpose to the tedium. However, while the conclusion of the transfer brought relief, what we forgot is that, often, what happens next is much, much worse.
So, on to Act Two, during which the player’s worth is endlessly debated.
There can be no winning for Pogba. In one sense, yes, he’s an extravagantly paid professional athlete who should wake up laughing every morning but, in a more relative sense, he’s just another victim.
Transfer-culture dominates the landscape. Though hard to conclusively prove, one suspects that there exists now a growing subculture of football watchers who engage more with the market than the actual sport. They are people living vicariously through their club’s economic ambition; they are the sort who hound social media executives through June and July, demanding official confirmation of Shiny New Player X’s arrival but who, curiously, vanish when Big Ben chimes and Jim White puts away his yellow tie. Like a seasonal rash, they flare up during the summer only to be calmed by Autumn’s chilly breeze.
No transfers, no party.
Or is there?
Pogba’s move from Juventus was seismic enough to be of universal interest. While Manchester United’s close rivals will fiercely resent their attempts to buy their way back to the top of the game, the attention paid to their new French midfielder – and his cost – doesn’t hinge on that. Instead, it’s a debating point: another issue around which the transfer-hungry can fight in block-capitaled social media posts. Don’t misunderstand, this doesn’t involve respectful discussion on where his best position may be or which players will lose their place to balance Jose Mourinho’s side. Instead, it’s the digital equivalent of overweight children fighting with mammoth beanbags. No nuance, no compromise, just one clumsy swing after another.
This is what they do when the window closes, this is their off-season. Like any player who has moved for a large fee, Pogba is now more a point of conflict than a footballer.
The reasonable would concede that, whether successful or otherwise, the judgement on his return to England isn’t due for some time. Even ignoring the commercial detail, the value of his image and the many shirts United will sell adorning his name, his pure footballing value will only be apparent in retrospect. What did he enable his new club to do and to achieve during the length of his contract? What did they win, what did he become? Mourinho will hope that August 2016 represents a start point for something memorable and that, over the coming seasons and years, Pogba will be a foundation block. There are layers here beyond the pitch and considerations to be given to how his presence in the North West might extend the club’s reach. Players want to play with other great players and that forms part of the assessment context for any modern deal; not how did Pogba play on an isolated night in Rotterdam or in a dysfunctional afternoon at Vicarage Road, but what influence did he have over the club’s twelve, twenty-four and thirty-six month trajectory.
The majority naturally understand and accept that. The LOLing window-dwellers, however, do not. Each of Pogba’s individual performances, his every touch in fact, is emoji fodder and part of an argument which will never end. Each one offers another chance to swing that huge beanbag and engage in running battles over his fee. It’s death by snark, and a facet of a supporter culture which seems unmoved by the league table, the score, or the eventual result of games.
It’s post-football football, a place in which the game itself is being obscured by its own periphery.