Pogba's branding means Man United's record buy will be under more scrutiny
Manchester United turned a weakness into a strength when they were trying to sign Paul Pogba from Juventus last year.
Knowing their squad lacked the stellar talent of the midfielder's other suitors, European champions Real Madrid, United pitched to Pogba the idea that, if he went to the Bernabeu, he would just be one of several world-class stars. If he came to United, though, the club asserted that he could grow into the main man.
The pitch was backed up with figures showing the social media interest around Pogba's potential transfer to Old Trafford. The numbers far outweighed those around stories linking him to Madrid. Having already been at United, Pogba also knew how big the club was.
With a bigger contract on the table and the promise that United would be competing for more of the world's best players, Pogba listened. Moreover, he had embraced social media and was the man who convinced Patrice Evra to join Instagram earlier last year. The defender's singing and dancing has become one of the best things about the internet and he sometimes doubles up with Pogba for cameos.
Pogba was happy to be part of the hype when he did sign for a world record 89.3 million fee, arriving at the training ground in a red and black car provided by club sponsors Chevrolet. United's London office in Mayfair designed special transfer logos for social media and hashtags like #Pogback. The online noise was significant.
In November, I met managing director Richard Arnold, the second-most important UK-based official at United -- the Glazer family, who own the club, are based in the United States -- during the Lisbon Web summit, where he delivered a speech that focused on United's social media success.
Behind him, a screen buzzed with key statistics: 71 million followers on Facebook, 11 million on Twitter. Another 11 platforms were also listed. United's reach on social media has tapped into a global support of fans, many of whom will never see a game in person.
Arnold spoke about the campaign surrounding Pogba's signing, citing 615,000 interactions on Twitter compared to 219,000 for Luis Suarez when he moved to Barcelona in 2014 and Kevin De Bruyne's 56,000 when he joined Manchester City the following year.
Arnold even compared engagement with the world's biggest religious feeds, saying they were bigger when measured in retweets. His words were treated with cynicism but he didn't care; United are seen as football's commercial trailblazers and any of their rivals would give him a job tomorrow.
For years, United struggled to monetise their global support, especially in second- and third-world economies. Issues included the team never visiting for friendly games, as well as the abundant availability of counterfeit merchandise. Now, companies in emerging economies, such as India and Indonesia, pay to align their product with United, to use the faces of players or the club badge for promotion purposes.
That income helps sign the likes of Pogba and the associated marketing can be daring. For example, an image of United's No. 6 currently dominates an adidas store on Barcelona's Rambla Catalunya thoroughfare.
That's a player from a team currently sixth in England, dominating a main street in the home city of the Spanish champions, a side that is better and has more star players. United's brand managers love it, as does Pogba. The club might not be in the Champions League, but the profile is higher than ever.
United were late to embrace social media for fear of the ensuing abuse, while the idea of it baffled Sir Alex Ferguson. When he walked in on a conversation between two first teamers about the subject at the club's swimming pool, he told them he couldn't see the point. Nor could some of his players, such as Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Ferguson wanted to underplay signings, not overplay them; talking was to be done on the pitch. On Sunday, he watched United play Liverpool sitting no more than a few yards away from David Beckham who, 15 years ago, caused his then-manager concern with his off-field profile. Times were changing then and have continued to do so.
Today's players dab in celebration, use social media accounts to promote films and have their initials shaved into their head in gold. They'll push marketing campaigns for boot manufacturers that imply you'll be a better player if you wear a particular product. The marketing speak used is as relevant as terms like "glide" or "energise" are to male facial shaving.
But, done well and with a good product, it is profitable. Pogba is a good product. He's had a decent, if less than spectacular, start to his second spell at Old Trafford. He's playing well, improving and is gradually becoming the focus of the team on the field. You'll be hard pushed to find a fan who has regrets about signing him, or one who doesn't think he's going to be one of the best players of his generation.
Pogba had no objections when Twitter's designers in Silicon Valley worked up an emoji of his head that was released two days before Sunday's game. United also celebrated it. Kids loved it, just as they love Pogba, whose shirts are big sellers among the young and tourists who buy them at Old Trafford.
But not everyone approves. For better or worse, ostentation has long been frowned upon in Manchester and players have traditionally been more respected if they keep their heads down. In general, being perceived to be "big time" is frowned upon across football. That's why Liverpool's white suits were laughed at before the 1996 FA Cup final and used a motivational tool by United.
But Pogba is big time. He's the most expensive player on the planet and has global appeal in an entertainment industry. So as long as he remains personable and professional with those around him, it doesn't matter if his online persona is different. Plus, United's reach also goes way, way beyond their home city.
Modern young fans, in Manchester or otherwise, want to know what their heroes are doing 24/7; who they're dating, what they're watching and where they're eating or playing five-a-side football with their mates.
The commercial ship has sailed off down the Manchester Ship Canal and United are embracing the monetary gains to be made from new opportunities, from link-ups with Uber to Pogba emojis flashing around the pitch during the Liverpool game. The timing was unfortunate and looked awkward as Pogba had his worst game in a red shirt, especially in the first half, but that's football; unpredictability makes it more interesting,
The sponsors that align themselves with United have helped the club take on the financial challenges that followed the Glazers' 2005 takeover. If having a Ping-Pong partner in Pyongyang or an official dog lead in Dagestan means that a cap can be kept on ticket prices while top talent continues to be signed, then it's not really a big deal.
But, for the players themselves, if you have your face adorning advertising hoardings, personalised boots and shave your initials into your head, you're putting yourself firmly above the parapet. Which means you're open to criticism when things go wrong.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.