Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Manchester United's inbetweeners: why Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku's likely exits will be source of regret

Both men arrived at the Premier League club with high expectations but their respective stints have proved to be underwhelming

The destinations are clear. Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku will be in Australia, Singapore, China and limbo.

The two most expensive players in Manchester United’s history are on their pre-season tour. Whether they will participate in the season itself is more of a moot point.

Their signings were intended as statements, £89 million (Dh408.8m) and £75m deals respectively. They were designed to power United back to the summit of the English game.

Instead, they could leave Old Trafford – Pogba probably for either Juventus or Real Madrid, Lukaku for Inter Milan – with United having finished sixth, 32 points off the pace.

The Frenchman spoke last month of wanting “a new challenge,” as though there were no more worlds to conquer in Manchester.

Go now and both could be seen as indictments of the Jose Mourinho years. The Portuguese dropped Pogba. Lukaku bulked up, as though attempting to impersonate Mourinho’s talismanic strikers, and lost his pace.

Big presences, big names, big fees but without the big impact – in terms of either longevity or silverware – that was intended.

But Lukaku enjoyed a career-best goal return of 27 in his debut year. Pogba raised his personal ceiling to 16 last season, albeit in a season of both brilliance and mediocrity.

That is not to argue that either transfer has been a coup, though United got the better deal when both they and Chelsea targeted the Belgian and Alvaro Morata in 2017 and Pogba scored in that year’s Europa League final.

Instead, polarising figures languish in a grey area. They are not crushing let-downs like previous flagship recruits such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, men whose performances represented grave disappointments.

Romelu Lukaku stretches during Manchester United's training session.EPA
Romelu Lukaku stretches during Manchester United's training session.EPA

Nor do they belong anywhere near the list of great United signings, the transformative figures, the talismen, the catalysts. They have not been an Eric Cantona, a Roy Keane, a Cristiano Ronaldo.

Rather, they reflect a modern phenomenon at Old Trafford, of costly signings who are neither successes nor failures but something in between.

As a charismatic controversialist, Pogba is a magnet to criticism, but several of United’s more prominent buys since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement – Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, even and eventually Marouane Fellaini – belong in the same category.

Their Old Trafford days have had highlights, but not enough. They have not been consistent enough; the collective has not achieved enough.

Yet there has been evidence of the ability to suggest that in another club, another culture, another context, they would have flourished.

Pogba’s burst of form at the start of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure – nine goals and six assists in 12 games – had, like his Manchester derby double the previous season, showed how dynamic and destructive he can be.

Lukaku had three successive two-goal salvos in winter, the last facilitating the astonishing win over Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of their Uefa Champions League tie in March.

But each ended the season out of form and perhaps aiming to be out of the club.

And they reflect a greater problem. Look at United’s 10 biggest signings at periods in the past and they would have been littered with unqualified successes, from Tommy Taylor and Denis Law via Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo.

Now, though it is unfair to judge Aaron Wan-Bissaka and both Martial and Victor Lindelof have time on their side, there are none.

Unflattering comparisons can be drawn with Liverpool or Manchester City, but also with United’s past.

Rio Ferdinand was a record buy who promised more than he delivered until, when paired with Nemanja Vidic, he transformed perceptions.

Perhaps Lukaku and Pogba could have similar evolutions. Instead, should they go, their legacies feel ones of underachievement, their United careers, in the context of their fees, destined to be remembered as underwhelming.

Updated: July 9, 2019 10:20 AM

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