Manchester United’s inability to turn huge financial resources into a fully functioning team is personified by Paul Pogba’s struggle to justify a place in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s far from outstanding side.
Not for the first time, Pogba spoke of his frustrations at club level on international duty for France last week, where he again shone as the World Cup winners booked their place in the final four of the Nations League.
Brought back to United for a then world record £89 million ($118 million) fee in 2016, Pogba’s second spell at Old Trafford has been one of fits and starts, without ever living up to expectations for long spells.
Repeatedly leaving Pogba out was one of the factors that led to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal as United boss in December 2018.
But nearly two years on, another manager, Solskjaer, has reached the same conclusion.
Pogba has started just one of United’s last five Premier League games, in which he gave away the match-winning penalty in a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal.
In three of the four league games Solskjaer has picked Pogba from the start, United have lost at Old Trafford, including a 6-1 humiliation by Tottenham in which the 27-year-old was guilty of conceding another spot-kick.
Where Pogba once had the star power and price tag to justify his place, he is no longer even United’s most influential midfielder.
Bruno Fernandes took his tally to 19 goals in 34 appearances since joining in January from Sporting Lisbon with the winner in an uninspiring 1-0 victory over West Brom on Saturday.
Pogba missed that clash due to a slight injury, but Solskjaer expects him to be fit for Tuesday’s visit of Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League.
Other than a handful of promising performances when the Premier League returned from a three-month shutdown due to coronavirus in June, Solskjaer has yet to find a way to match Fernandes and Pogba in the same midfield without being overrun.
The two started the first three league games of this season together when they conceded 11 goals to Crystal Palace, Brighton and Spurs.
Tellingly, Pogba’s one outstanding club display of the season so far came in a 5-0 thrashing of RB Leipzig in the Champions League, when Fernandes was left on the bench.
– ‘He cannot be happy’ –
Much more often, it is Pogba who has been sacrificed with Solskjaer trusting to the industry of Fred and Scott McTominay or Nemanja Matic to balance the midfield.
“He is in a situation with his club where he cannot be happy, neither with his playing time, nor with his positioning,” said France boss Didier Deschamps.
Just last month, United triggered a club option to extend Pogba’s contract by a year to 2022, but that says more about wanting to protect his value in the transfer market than guaranteeing his long-term future at Old Trafford.
Pogba has repeatedly stressed his desire to one day play for Real Madrid, particularly if that means playing under the orders of Zinedine Zidane.
Now blessed with an abundance of midfield options with £40 million signing Donny van de Beek also struggling for game time, United would be open to a sale come the end of the season.
But they would have to accept a huge loss on the fee they paid four years ago unless Pogba can finally start proving his worth.
Solskjaer insisted this week Pogba remains “a very important player.” However, the Norwegian has not been willing to risk his job by keeping him in the team.
Defeat to Basaksehir three weeks ago put the pressure back on Solskjaer after a fine start to United’s Champions League campaign in which they beat two of last season’s semi-finalists, Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain.
The Red Devils cannot risk a repeat when the Turkish champions visit on Tuesday.
That Solskjaer now tends to leave Pogba on the sidelines when he most needs a win reflects how little return on investment United are getting from their most expensive ever player.