In 2016, when Paul Pogba returned to Manchester United in a then-world record deal, they coined the hashtag “#Pogback”to mark the occasion. United, Pogba’s social media team and sponsor Adidas even worked together on a slick promo video featuring UK rapper Stormzy that was designed to get tons of views and likes.
It was a rollout fit for a king — and appropriate, given how important social media has become in the marketing world (to say nothing of how much elite athletes like Pogba have come to rely on it).
It also underscored just big a statement of intent this was from United. That summer, the team also brought in goal machine Zlatan Ibrahimovic, defensive stalwart Eric Bailly, exciting winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan and hired serial winner Jose Mourinho. Together, this quintet helped deliver the League Cup and the Europa League during their first year together. Surely, more trophies, to say nothing of the league title, would be coming, right?
It’s been five trophyless seasons since then, and on Wednesday, United cut ties with one of the last remaining members of that group (Bailly is the only one left, and he could be leaving this summer, too). This time, they went the complete opposite route, releasing a plain old written statement announcing Pogba’s impending departure that was devoid of any hashtags or guest rappers.
In other words, United #Pogbade him farewell without resorting to cheap social media tactics. Maybe an anti-climatic statement was appropriate, given how long his departure had been a fait accompli. Pogba had never really settled back in and he and his late agent, Mino Raiola, had constantly #Pogbatted their eyelashes at other teams, especially Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and, most unforgivably, Man City. When Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over, Pogba seemed happy with his expanded role and even expressed interest in re-signing in 2020. However, the board chose not to engage at the time, and when they finally did offer him a new contract, he #Pogbalked. The club’s current situation made his departure a no-#Pogbrainer.
Instead, the club summed up his up-and-down six year tenure and focused on the #Pogood instead of the #Pogbad — most notably the two cups, the Pogba-inspired comeback against City in 2018, as well as his accomplishments with France (particularly, the 2018 World Cup). Of course, that only underscored how the #Pogbadge he seemed to play his #Pogbest for was the French national team’s, and that he only sporadically showed the same type of form for the club that #Pogbroke the #Pogbank to sign him.
Maybe it was because of that price tag that things went the way they did for Pogba at United. The exorbitant fee put a gigantic target on his #Pogback and plenty of people (most notably ex-Liverpool player-turned-curmudgeonly commentator Graeme Souness) constantly criticized Pogba over the smallest things while refusing to praise him when he played well. Whenever he dyed his hair, he was excoriated for caring too much about his image. Whenever he celebrated a goal by dancing (especially if he did a choreographed routine with his #Pogbuddy Jesse Lingard, whose departure was also announced Wednesday), he would be slammed for not taking things seriously. If he posted a video on Instagram or Twitter, he was labelled as a social media dilettante or worse. There was, undoubtedly, a racial double-standard at play. For instance, no one complained when Peter Crouch did the robot dance after scoring goals. Or when Phil Foden launched a TikTok account. Or when David Beckham went through his many different hairstyles (for the record, I quite liked the shaved head — I thought he pulled it off well).
To be fair, United share plenty of the #Pogblame for not getting the #Pogbest out of him. Managers moved him around on the pitch, playing him as a defensive midfielder, part of a midfield two or three, a left winger and even a false-nine. At Juventus, he thrived playing in a midfield three, linking up with pass maestro Andrea Pirlo and defensive-minded Arturo Vidal. He never had that same type of defined role at United. In fact, The Athletic makes clear that the club signed him without any clear strategy in mind. In many ways, he epitomized the Ed Woodward Era. He was signed because he opened up a lot of new marketing and commercial possibilities for the club and because he was a good footballer who would surely help the club just by virtue of the fact that the was talented and in demand. Plus, he was the prodigal son coming home — the club righting one of the few major mistakes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure.
Instead, the club is repeating history and losing him on a free — possibly to Juventus again. In the end, there were some good moments, but in no way did United get the most #Pogbang for their #Pogbucks.