Paul Pogba's record transfer to Man United has risk but is smart business
Twenty years after Newcastle United paid £15 million ($23.4m at the time) to acquire Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers, an English club has again broken the world record transfer fee.
Paul Pogba's move from Juventus to Manchester United will cost at least six times that, which is quite an increase over two decades. Because there's very little transparency in football, it's tough to put an exact number on what United paid for his services once you factor in agent commissions, which often get spread over the life of the contract. Different folks are putting different numbers out there, some include commissions, some do not (which, in this case, is particularly disingenuous). What's not in question is that it's a huge amount and a world record fee.
The commissions involved -- which according to multiple sources were shared, albeit not equally, and are far and away the highest ever paid -- are a sign of the times. The deal itself, especially when juxtaposed with Shearer two decades ago, is a sign of where the sport is going and where it's been.
When Shearer moved, Newcastle United would have looked to recoup the fee primarily from ticket sales, merchandise and prize money for finishing near the top of the league. Today, Manchester United will help pay for Pogba with an array of additional revenue streams that either didn't exist or were insignificant in the mid-1990s: global broadcast deals, off-season tours and the monetization of his image.
That's significant too, because at this level footballers are also walking billboards to which sponsors attach themselves. When, like NASCAR drivers, they get to race on one of the biggest, most popular racetracks (the Premier League) for one of the biggest, most popular teams (Manchester United), you get a natural multiplier effect.
What's more, Pogba has a commercial appeal that is rare. The game's iconic players -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Pogba's new teammate) -- are around 30 or older. Other than Neymar, you won't find another player under the age of 28 who comes close to Pogba's global oomph. He's 23, speaks four languages, is fun to watch, smiles a lot, has zany hairstyles and is engaging in front of the cameras. He also happens to be one of the very best players in the world. And he'll be treading the biggest stage of all for the foreseeable future. That alone makes a transfer fee skyrocket.
The other aspect that sets him apart is that he's a central midfielder. Not an attacking No. 10 virtuoso, not an electrifying winger, but a big man with little man skills patrolling the middle of the park. Simply put, it's not a glamour position. Scan the list of the most expensive players ever and you get way, way down into the late 20s (Cesc Fabregas) before you find guys who played a similar role.
Maybe that's why a Manchester United legend like Paul Scholes questioned the fee. He suggested that, for that kind of cash, you expect to see at least 50 goals a year. It was an odd thing to hear, not least because Scholes himself was a box-to-box midfielder who never scored more than 20 goals in a single season. Yet, if Pogba can give you 10 seasons with the kind of productivity Scholes offered at his peak, you'd feel United would be more than happy.
That said, in many ways Pogba -- even after five seasons of top-flight football -- is still a piece of clay and definitions get somewhat reductive. You look at his creativity and range of passing and imagine him as an Andrea Pirlo or Xavi type deep-lying playmaker. You look at his size and strength, coupled with his close control and dribbling ability, and you imagine the havoc he would wreak in the hole behind the strikers. And you look at his long-limbed gallops and ballistics ability running into the box and picture him as a two-way midfielder, deployed on the inside-left of a midfield three (which is where he mostly played last year.)
The challenge for Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is to find the best place for him to thrive and, in some ways, it's going to be a soft landing. Pogba's versatility means he can be slotted into various roles and the fact that, at least in the first season, the spotlight will be shared with Ibrahimovic and Mourinho himself -- two guys who attract attention wherever they rock up -- may make it easier for him to settle. So, too, will be the fact that he spent three seasons at United as a youngster.
Are there risks?
Of course there are. It doesn't matter how wealthy you are as a club, when you spend money on someone, it is money that you're not spending on someone else. There's an opportunity cost and there will be a huge amount tied up in Pogba.
But all this is mitigated by the fact that you can get a good decade out of him. Or, if he doesn't live up to expectations, you sell him with a very good chance you'll get a big chunk of your money back. Just as United did with Angel Di Maria a few years ago, it's a very safe bet that Paris Saint-Germain, which also happens to be his hometown club, would happily spend big on Pogba.
There are associated risks for Pogba, too. United are not in the Champions League this season and, given the depth of competition in the Premier League, it's not guaranteed that they'll be back in 2017-18. Any team Ibrahimovic is on tends to be built around him -- that's what happens when you're bigger, stronger and more talented than everyone else -- and that means Pogba will have to adapt more than you'd expect the world's most expensive player to have to adapt. (Though, as I wrote above, there's a silver lining to this as well.)
There has clearly been a paradigm shift in transfer fees over the past 20 years, one that is probably not explained only by booming media rights and commercial income. Pogba's fee embodies this. But relative to many other deals done in these past three years by United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward -- who has spent a fortune in fees, wages and agent commissions and, before this summer, had just one nailed on 2016-17 starter to show for it: Antony Martial -- this one makes sense.
There are many chapters yet to write in the tale of Paul Labile Pogba. The next ones, maybe all the remaining ones, will be written in red.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.