France’s Midfield Pickax

Paul Pogba walked away from Manchester United as a teenager and still became a star

This was not what Paul Pogba had signed up for. It was the summer of 2011 and Manchester United was on a tour of the United States. The first team had just beaten Barcelona in front of 82,000 in Washington, D.C., but Paul Pogba, the club’s young star, was far away with the club’s U-18s, schlepping around Scotland, playing minor-league teams in ramshackle little stadiums.

If nearly 3,000 turned up to watch a game in Ayr—a decent crowd for a friendly against a youth side in an outpost on the west coast of Scotland—that only reflected the prestige and importance of the first-team, the grand stage, Pogba believed, his talent and ambition deserved.

He’d been at United for two years already, signing after a protracted dispute with his previous club, Le Havre. And it’s not like he was a kid any more. Young people, those who have the most time, are always the least patient. Sir Alex Ferguson, then United manager, told Pogba he would get his chance, urged him to wait his turn, as greats like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs did.

By the fall of 2011, the midfielder from the Paris suburbs had featured for the first-team in a couple of League Cup games. In the second half of the 2011–12 season he’d made three Premier League substitute appearances and came off the bench against Bilbao in the Europa League. By then, Pogba had already decided he wanted out, making up his mind that Ferguson, famous for his development of youngsters and his intolerance of dissenters, was wrong.

“I at least felt ready to have more playing time,” Pogba told France Football in 2013. “[Ferguson] didn’t show me enough that he wanted me in his squad. Even if he said some nice things about me, about my potential, if you don’t show it, it’s all just hot air.”

Pogba declined to sign a new contract and walked out on Old Trafford to join Juventus two years ago, leaving Ferguson mumbling to the club’s television station about a lack of respect. Since then, Pogba, now 21, has started 51 Serie A games, scored 12 goals, won two Italian championships, and carved out a key role for himself in France’s World Cup team.

France has a reputation for producing unruly insurgents, but its great midfields are feted for their on-field harmony. Michel Platini (also an ex-Juventino), Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, and Luis Fernandez were “le Carré Magique,” the Magic Square, in the mid-Eighties. In ’98, Les Bleus boasted Zinedine Zidane, current head coach Didier Deschamps (both former Juventus men), and Emmanuel Petit, with a young Patrick Vieira.

In Brazil, it’s Pogba, Yohan Cabaye, and Blaise Matuidi who run the midfield, with Pogba adopting a more defensive stance than at his club. That combination worked well in France’s 3–0 win over Honduras on Sunday that put Les Bleus in a strong position ahead of its upcoming second group game against Switzerland.

Pogba, though, was lucky to avoid a red card after lashing out when provoked by Wilson Palacios. It’s not the first time la Pioche—the Pickax—has lost his cool. Deschamps has warned him about his temper. His nickname suggests hard work and team play—thrashing holes in defensive walls so others can slip through—and it also indicates a forceful, stubborn character who is blunt or sharp, depending on which way he’s handled.

When Pogba left the club, Ferguson implied there were no regrets about the exit of a talented but impertinent kid who had proved more trouble than he was worth. The club must now regret letting such a powerful weapon slip from its grasp, especially now that his true worth is in the neighborhood, perhaps, of $100 million. At least that’s the figure that surfaced recently in connection to reports that the kid might be returning to Manchester United.