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Football Reporting


Unpacking what this week’s ‘shock’ transfer news means

Paul Pogba‘s agent, Mino Raiola, caused outrage earlier this week when he said Pogba needed to leave Manchester United.

“Paul is unhappy at United… he’s not able to express himself the way he would like to and the way others expect him to,” Raiola said. “His contract expires in 18 months, in the summer of 2022, so I think the best solution for all concerned is if he’s sold in the next window.” Otherwise, Raiola warned, United risked losing him as a free agent since “for the time being, [Pogba] doesn’t want to extend his contract.”

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“If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand much of football,” Raiola added. “In any case, just put all the blame on me if next summer Paul leaves.”

Raiola can rest assured. He’ll be blamed whether Pogba stays or leaves.

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In some ways, there’s a lot to unpack there and in others, there’s very little: Raiola is doing what Raiola does. He’s an agent — he’s looking out for what he thinks is his client’s best interest. He works for Pogba, not United. (Though, of course, he has worked for, and been paid by, United in the past and guess what? He’ll likely work for, and be paid by them, again if they bring in another one of his clients, like, say, Erling Haaland.)

If you dig a little deeper and apply a spot of logic, you’re left with one main doubt: what if United are in on this? What if, far from being dismayed by Raiola’s words, they actually welcome them as a way of cutting through the nonsense and speculation?

Nobody’s going to dispute the fact that Pogba hasn’t lived up to his transfer fee or wages. (By the way, transfer fees and wages are really another way of saying “expectations.”) In that, you’d assume Raiola and those who think the agent is the Spawn of Satan would agree.

Pogba is 27, and there are obviously mitigating circumstances to explain why he hasn’t lived up to his billing. His relationship with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s predecessor, Jose Mourinho, wasn’t great and since the start of last season, he’s been beset by injuries (he was out for two long spells) and also had a rough time with COVID-19.

Simply put, United’s job is to figure out what they think he can contribute should he extend his contract. Assess the different scenarios — ranging from “Pogba harnesses his immense talent and leads United to win the Premier League!” to “Pogba sulks and becomes a bit player” — and determine the likelihood of each. Factor in what sort of fee you might be able to get should you consent to let him leave. Consider whether you have a replacement in-house (Donny van de Beek?) or how much you’d want to spend to get another player (or multiple players). Do some calculations and decide how much — in terms of years and wages — you want to offer him. If, of course, you want to offer him a new deal at all.

(There are obvious things you’d want to consider too. Are you going to have to renew a bunch of other contracts? What impact has COVID-19 had on your revenue? Will you keep Solskjaer and, if there’s a chance you won’t, what is the likelihood that whoever replaces him might want Pogba? There’s more, of course; this is just the abridged version…)

It may seem cruel to reduce this to numbers, but that’s exactly what well-run clubs — heck, well-run businesses — do. They look at the spreadsheets and scenarios, and make decisions accordingly. (Whether we feel United have been well-run, however, is a subject for a different time.)

We don’t know for certain if United offered Pogba a contract extension, as Raiola implied, or if they’re waiting to see what happens, or if they offered him the sort of new deal they knew he wouldn’t take. Of the three scenarios, I’d lean towards one of the latter two. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that all that’s happening here is Raiola’s statement made public exactly the sort of conversations that would ordinarily happen behind closed doors (or, via leaks from the agent’s camp or from the club).

If you want to stay with an improved contract, you break off negotiations and ask to be allowed to find a new team. If you truly want to leave, you break off negotiations and ask to be allowed to leave. Yeah, that’s right: it’s a timeless negotiating stance, no matter what your goal is. (And by the way, that line about not wanting to extend his contract “for the time being” is a classic way of leaving the door open.)

In other words, nothing Raiola said would have surprised United.

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Does it make a difference that he said it in public? Not really. It would have if he were Rashford or Bruno Fernandes, somebody beloved by all who was seen as a key part of the club’s future. But he’s not. If he was, United wouldn’t have let his contract run down to where he’s 18 months away from free agency and the club have very little leverage.

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That said, there is an issue of timing. Raiola spoke on the eve of a decisive Champions League game against RB Leipzig, one that would ultimately see United knocked out of the competition, and before Saturday’s derby against Pep Guardiola’s City. But did it destabilise United or Pogba, for that matter? No. Their defeat had nothing to do with it. Pogba didn’t start, but then again he wasn’t starting much before either: Solskjaer picked him in his XI just once since Nov. 1 and given the formation Solskjaer chose, there was no natural spot for him anyway. He came on for the last 30 minutes, scored a goal and played well.



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Bottom line? You can paint Raiola as the villain in this situation, but nothing he said was new to United and, if anything, it does them a favour. If they want to find him a new club — and you presume they do, since they’ve waited this long and don’t want to lose him for nothing — the word is out there. They don’t need to peddle him around, Raiola has done it for them.

Raiola says he looks out for his players and that’s his only loyalty, which is exactly what an agent ought to be doing. It’s part of the reason why a guy who started his career in a restaurant in Holland now counts the likes of Haaland, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Matthijs De Ligt, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Pogba among his clients. But there’s more to it than that. He serves his clients, but gets paid by clubs. According to the Football Leaks revelations, he earned nearly $50 million for taking Pogba from Juventus to Old Trafford, getting paid a fee from both clubs. (Why player agents in football get paid not by the people they represent, but by the clubs who employ their players is a whole other issue, one of the dysfunctions of the modern game and a discussion for another time.)

Raiola knows that if United aren’t going to extend Pogba’s deal, it’s in their interest to sell him, either in January or next summer. He knows they’ll need his help in doing so, and he’ll be all too happy to do it. For a fee, of course.

United know this too, and they know they have very little leverage, like any other club that allows their players’ contracts to run down. That’s why, while Raiola’s plain-speaking might have shocked some, it actually serves United’s purposes. And maybe, just maybe, it’s even part of a common strategy to cut their losses and move on.

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