French football superstar Paul Pogba is to return to Manchester United on a world record transfer fee of £89m, just four years after the club sold him to Italian team Juventus for just £1.5m.
The huge money acquisition of the attacking midfielder is part of the opening gambit at Old Trafford by new manager Jose Mourinho, which has included Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer, French defender Eric Bailly for £30m and Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan for a reported £26m. But Pogba’s fee sets a new high benchmark for the club and world football.
Is he worth it? Is anybody worth that much? How do clubs make these decisions? Is there a magic formula? The answers to those questions are – “yes”, “yes”, “with great care (hopefully)” and, “no”.
There is definitely no magic formula – ultimately it is a gamble because the intangibles are so significant. What the clubs can do, however, is mitigate the bet. United know, for example, that despite the enormous outlay it will almost certainly be covered by the commercial benefits of the deal.
First, and maybe foremost, is the maintenance of the continuing narrative of the United brand: “We are the biggest club in the world so we can always sign the biggest players”. This part of the brand has certainly suffered since the departure of legendary United manager Alex Ferguson. None of the most recent signings have carried the brand forward despite the combined outlay of close to £500m. The Pogba story reinstates the brand.
Mourhino’s put-down of rival managers Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool and Arsene Wenger of Arsenal in his press conference, as being from clubs unable to compete with the big beasts of international football, plays directly to the brand value of the club.
In purely monetary terms, the club will expect huge shirt sales. When Ronaldo moved to Madrid it is estimated that shirt sales alone covered the transfer fee within the first year. Man Utd will also believe that new sponsorship deals will be secured in due course – especially in the French market – again as a consequence of the strength of the brand.
United will also presume a top-four finish with the riches of the Champions League on offer. This will enable them to go after those players reluctant to join a club not competing at that level and so reestablish the virtuous cycle of success, recruitment, success, recruitments.
Also, assuming that Pogba is a success over the period of his contract he will have huge sell-on value. If he decides to stay, United will still have a great player without the necessity of another transfer fee. On the balance sheets of the clubs, transfer fees are amortised over the period of the contract. Therefore, when the contract ends, Pogba will have a zero value on the balance sheet. How much would it cost to replace him?
Big sports, big money
Is the fee itself the sign of a crazy business? Not really. It is comparable with all the big sports franchises such as those in the US – for example, baseball club Miami Marlins signed a 12-year contract worth US$325m with Giancarlo Stanton in 2014. It is also in line with a Premier League which has sold its TV rights for the next three years, domestically and globally, for close to £10 billion.
The talent market will always be at the mercy of a lack of supply and an excess of demand. The truth is that there aren’t many Pogbas out there and it is Mourhino’s judgement that he is capable of making the difference. Mourinho thought that when he tried to sign Pogba for Chelsea and he maintains that belief now. Clearly, the board has backed that judgement. Similarly, United’s bitter rivals Manchester City have paid close to £50m for a relatively untried centre-back John Stones. Value for money? City think so.
Of course, all of the potential commercial benefits are integrally connected to the success of the core business – what happens on the pitch. The good news is that Pogba may well be the answer to the longstanding “how do we replace Paul Scholes” question. His stats in a Juventus shirt tend to suggest that he might just be that guy.
In at least two aspects he probably out-rates Scholes – he can dribble and he can tackle. He also produced more assists (12) than all of United’s midfielders put together in 2015/16. To be fair, not a very high bar to clear. He had more dribbles, more shots and more chances created per game. The added bonus with Pogba is that he also has great defensive stats with an average of 2.3 successful tackles per game which actually makes him more defensively effective, statistically, than Michael Carrick.
So, he can tackle, pass, dribble, shoot and score – what’s not to like? As Mourhinho constantly reminds us, it’s all about the team. Will he fit in, will he flourish, will he improve? One of the most significant factors in the success, or otherwise, of incoming players is the ability to fit the culture. Pogba already knows the culture and the culture knows him so it may be one obstacle that he does not have to overcome. Also, his impressive stats occurred in the different environment of Serie A. Will that be a problem? Again, he knows the Premier League – albeit from only seven appearances – but the environment is not new to him.
Perhaps the single most significant unknown is attitude – but United have had a close look at him already. The greats he has to succeed, Robson, Keane, Scholes, had what we might euphemistically refer to as an “edge”. If Pogba also delivers a similar edge to United, allied to his strength, technique, athleticism and statistics, he may well outperform them all.
Then again, he might be a £90m flop. As ever, it’s the things that can’t be counted that may prove to be the key variables.
Twelve years ago, United paid £12m for an untried teenager named Ronaldo – making him the most expensive teenager in Premier League history – “crazy”, everybody cried; 37 years ago, their neighbours paid £1.4m for Steve Daley – “crazy” they cried. For every Ronaldo, who will go on to be the best player in the world, there is a Daley, who will end up on the list of worst-ever signings. That’s why, ultimately the buck will stop with United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward – and his track record of sanctioning transfers isn’t great. Fingers crossed, Ed, it’s not the science that will let you down, it’s the art.