Manchester United signed Paul Pogba from Juventus for £89.3 million to turn them into Premier League contenders in 2016 but, five years on, offloading the France midfielder now holds the key to their title prospects.
Raising £50m or more by allowing Pogba to leave the club before his contract expires in June 2022 could be the difference between United making one or two priority signings — Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane — or having the resources to move for other targets including Kieran Trippier, Eduardo Camavinga and Jules Kounde.
Sources have told ESPN that United’s owners, the Glazer family, have given manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a £100m transfer fund for the summer window, but that figure will be topped up by any money raised by the departures of those players deemed not to have a future at Old Trafford.
There are a number of players who United will happily let go if they receive the right offer. Jesse Lingard, Brandon Williams, Diogo Dalot, Alex Telles, Phil Jones, Andreas Pereira, Daniel James and potentially Anthony Martial could all leave United this summer if an acceptable offer to sign them is received. United also have four senior goalkeepers on their books following the free transfer of Tom Heaton from Aston Villa, so Dean Henderson or David de Gea could also move out, on loan or permanently.
But Pogba is the likely game-changer for United because of the transfer fee the 28-year-old still commands in the transfer market.
As it stands, United have already spent £72.9m of their £100m fund by signing England winger Sancho from Borussia Dortmund. The club are still attempting to negotiate a fee with Real Madrid to sign Varane, with the Spanish club holding out for an unrealistic £60m for the centre-back who is entering the final year of his contract, but with Real needing to raise money for their own rebuilding programme, that deal is likely to happen in the region of £40m at some stage.
If United can agree a fee of around £40m for the France defender, that would take their summer spending beyond £110m, so they will have to find a way to bring in more money in order to make further signings.
Offloading fringe players will only raise so much, with Lingard likely to bring in the most following his impressive loan spell at West Ham last season. If United can raise £20m with the exit of Lingard, they could reasonably expect to take their outgoing deals to the £50m mark by letting the likes of Williams, Dalot, Telles, Jones, Pereira and James depart. Martial would perhaps bring in around £25m too, but there is no queue of clubs waiting to spend that kind of money to sign the inconsistent French forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher have helped give United greater focus in terms of recruitment this summer, with deals already done for Sancho and Heaton, the reality remains that the Glazers and outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward have the final say on ins and outs.
Murtough and Fletcher have taken much of the heavy lifting away from Woodward by focusing on the day-to-day challenges over the ins and outs of players, but transfer policy continues to be set by the Glazers and Woodward is still the gatekeeper between the recruitment staff and the owners.
The message from the top is clear: money must be raised by trimming the squad in order to spend more on new signings beyond Heaton, Sancho and Varane. Which is why Pogba’s future has become so pivotal to Solskjaer’s hopes of building a title-winning squad this summer.
Sources have told ESPN that the United hierarchy have little confidence that Pogba will sign a new contract before it expires in less than 12 months. Publicly, the message is that talks are ongoing over a new deal, but the reality is that United will let him go if Paris Saint-Germain follow through with their attempt to sign the player.
Pogba’s exit would unquestionably see United lose one of the world’s top midfielders, but he has rarely lived up to that billing since arriving from Juventus in a then-world record £89.3m transfer in August 2016.
So the money his exit could generate, on top of the likelihood of £50m raised by other outgoing transfers, would give Solskjaer another £90m-£100m to spend this summer and that sum could unlock the door to the arrivals of Trippier, Camavinga and Kounde.
United would also see their wage bill cut by £300,000-a-week — £15.6m a year — if Pogba moved on and that saving could help pay for the bulk of the wages of two or three new signings.
Many other clubs are in the same position as they look to move players on before they can bring any in. Manchester City are assessing which players could help land top targets Harry Kane and Jack Grealish, while Real Madrid and Barcelona are also having to make tough business decisions that usually only trouble smaller clubs.
United’s main issue is finding clubs who would take their fringe players and Pogba, however. PSG are the only team with a confirmed interest in Pogba, although he could yet be used as part of a swap deal for Varane if Real continue to keep United waiting.
As for the rest of the players that Solskjaer is prepared to let go, it may be a case of waiting until the final days of the transfer window next month before deals fall into place. Whether United can wait that long is another matter, but sanctioning the exit of Pogba in the weeks ahead could be the move that makes a huge difference for Solskjaer and his chances of delivering the title, or any trophy, to Old Trafford next season.
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