“When you see him you want to play and progress. He is an icon of football and I’ve heard he manages to improve every player he has at his disposal. I am a Juventus player now, but for sure when there is a coach like him he will coach you and you will become better.”
It was not quite a come-and-get-me plea, but Paul Pogba’s February 2016 ode to Pep Guardiola suggested a move to Manchester beckoned. And so it did. Just not to Manchester City, who had confirmed Guardiola was arriving three weeks earlier, but Manchester United. Should the Frenchman overcome the injury that forced him off in the final minutes of Sunday’s win at Burnley, the City faithful will get a first glimpse at a prospective buy at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday.
When the club’s power brokers compiled their short list of ideal targets for the summer of 2015, three names topped it: Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and Pogba. Two should line up in blue on Thursday. Pogba is the exception.
While Guardiola was still in charge of Bayern Munich then, it is safe to assume he was consulted by City’s director of football and his close friend, Txiki Begiristain. The Catalan seems keener on Sterling than Manuel Pellegrini, the manager who ostensibly signed the Englishman. De Bruyne was named the best player in a Bundesliga won by Guardiola’s Bayern, so he had first-hand knowledge of the Belgian’s excellence. Pogba was the other, more elusive target.
“I didn’t have any motive to go; it wasn’t the right time,” Pogba said after a window when he stayed at Juventus. One theory was that he remained because Barcelona were under a transfer embargo and his eventual destination would be the Camp Nou. Instead, it proved to be Old Trafford for a world-record fee of £89 million. As a price in excess of £70 million was touted in 2015, perhaps his cost was always too prohibitive for City.
Sterling, at £49 million, and De Bruyne, at £54.5 million, did not come cheap, but Pogba was in another bracket altogether. Likewise, while City have spent around £170 million under Guardiola, Pogba was more expensive on his own than the two dearest buys, John Stones and Leroy Sane, combined. They did not enter an auction with United for the Frenchman. The cheaper, and now injured, Ilkay Gundogan, was signed instead.
Yet it provides an intriguing “what if?” What if Pogba had been bought by the high priest of midfield play? Because despite City’s past interest, Pogba is not a quintessential Guardiola player. His two definitive midfielders were Xavi and Andres Iniesta, understated characters who lacked Pogba’s exuberance and his capacity to gravitate toward the limelight, diminutive technicians who do not have the Frenchman’s physical capabilities, one-club men reared in Barcelona’s ideology epitomising an ethos rather more than a footballer who plays for a team with no such defined identity.
Admittedly, Guardiola argues he adjusts his style of play to his surroundings and, besides buying the more sedate Xabi Alonso and La Masia graduate Thiago Alcantara for Bayern Munich, also recruited the more dynamic Arturo Vidal. It is true, too, that Guardiola champions possession football and Pogba has made the most passes in the Premier League this season at 2,139. But an 84.9 percent success rate may not quite be Xavi-esque. It indicates Pogba’s willingness to attempt more ambitious long passes than Guardiola’s Barcelona did.
But it is easy to imagine Pogba proving a conundrum to a manager on either side of Manchester. Much of his best football has come on the left of a midfield trio, and Guardiola prefers to have at least three men in centre of the pitch. The roles De Bruyne and David Silva occupied earlier in the season, which the Belgian termed as a “free eight,” might have suited him. Yet the reality of Guardiola’s City becoming a team of two halves, a front five and a back five, persuaded the Catalan to field a second holding midfielder to stop them being so open and means he has to choose between Silva and De Bruyne for the central attacking role.
It is a situation that has been at the heart of Jose Mourinho’s decisions over Pogba: does he then use his biggest buy as a No. 10, as he did at Anfield in October, or in one of the deeper roles? He has veered toward the latter, though generally in smaller games. When Pogba was fielded in a duo, Guardiola exposed his positional indiscipline. City’s September derby win came partly because of Pogba’s wanderlust, which afforded Silva and De Bruyne the freedom of Old Trafford. Given the City manager’s positional fixation, he could be frustrated by an individualist like Pogba.
Mourinho has conjured some disciplined displays from him, but in a different way. The Portuguese appreciates his towering frame. Pogba excelled against Chelsea by operating like a more gifted Marouane Fellaini in a team that had a minority of possession, something that is rarely true of Guardiola’s sides.
But arguably the closest thing to a typical Guardiola midfielder at Old Trafford is also the man who, in an understated way, looks an archetypal Mourinho player. Unselfish, adaptable, tactically astute, positionally sound and with a better pass completion rate than Pogba, Ander Herrera has nonetheless spent a season being overshadowed by his flashier, costlier sidekick. But while Mourinho and Guardiola are enemies who can seem opposites, he has the qualities to unite them in admiration.
Support InfoStride News' Credible Journalism: Only credible journalism can guarantee a fair, accountable and transparent society, including democracy and government. It involves a lot of efforts and money. We need your support. Click here to Donate