Manchester United could be the big winners if Paul Pogba is sold to Real Madrid
"Real Madrid is a dream for anyone," Pogba said during the recent international break. "There is also [Zinedine] Zidane as a coach and it's a dream for anybody who likes football. For now, I'm at Manchester. We don't know what the future holds. I'm at Manchester and I'm happy."
In response at the weekend, Zidane admitted that Pogba is a "player that I like a lot, he can do anything on the field," before admirably reminding his audience that "he is a Manchester United player and we must respect that."
Before we consider United's viewpoint on their most high-profile player and Real publicly flirting with each other, it is perhaps no surprise that the Spanish giants are once again playing the game of making their interest known in somebody else's superstar with not-so-subtle comments in the media.
United have been here before with Real, with Cristiano Ronaldo and David De Gea also publicly courted by the club during drawn-out transfer sagas in the past. Real got Ronaldo in 2009, of course, but missed out on De Gea thanks to a now-infamous faulty fax machine on August deadline day in 2015.
But just as Ronaldo did 10 years ago, Pogba is not only inviting the speculation, but adding to it with his own responses to questions about a possible move to Real. It is the nature of modern sport and Pogba is arguably no different to Eden Hazard, who is also doing little to dismiss the prospect of a move to Real from Chelsea this summer.
Yet Hazard has probably earned the right to weigh up his next move, having given Chelsea seven years of five-star service since arriving from Lille in 2012. The Belgian, who is approaching the final 12 months of his contract at Stamford Bridge, has helped Chelsea win five major trophies during his time at the club, including two Premier League titles, and can usually be relied upon to deliver when it matters most.
Pogba, who returned to United from Juventus for a then-world-record £89 million in 2016, is nowhere near to proving himself as influential, and reliable, at United as Hazard has become at Chelsea. The 26-year-old has shown flashes of becoming that player in a United shirt, but he is also too much of an enigma for anyone to know whether he is genuinely one of the best midfielders in the world or merely one whose reputation exceeds his actual contribution.
He has won too many honours for club and country to be written off as over-hyped, but with Real and Zidane circling, the United hierarchy would be well within their rights to consider whether, at 26, Pogba is the genuine article or somebody who will never quite become what many believe he should be. United need a commanding midfielder, one capable of dominating games and changing them in their favour with a moment of brilliance or his sheer force of personality, but we are still waiting for Pogba to do what the likes of Roy Keane, David Beckham, Bryan Robson and many others have done in the same area of the pitch for the club.
Statistics are often used as compelling evidence when judging a player, which is fine if you are Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, but with Pogba, they only tell part of the story. During 20 games under Jose Mourinho this season, he scored five goals and created four assists. In the 18 games he has played under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his goal return is nine, with seven assists.
On the face of it, he is delivering for Solskjaer and beginning to realise his potential, but then you recall his anonymous performance during the FA Cup quarterfinal defeat at Wolves, or his similarly ineffective display during the 2-0 Champions League loss at home to Paris Saint-Germain in February, and wonder whether he really is a player who can deliver when it matters or is simply one whose statistics enable him to look more effective than he actually is.
Pogba is clearly a talent, but should Solskjaer now look to build his team around him or would a cold-headed, calculated decision see him sold to make way for a player, or players, more suited to United's requirements?
There are off-field issues to consider too. The world's biggest clubs are all desperate to own a globally recognised star, and Pogba is the only United player right now who shares billboard space with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar from Los Angeles to Tokyo. This matters, rightly or wrongly, but it cannot be the driving factor in assessing a player's true value to a club and team.
If United were to cash in by selling Pogba to Real, they would lose their most visible commercial asset, and also a player who can create goals for himself and teammates such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. But they would also be without a player who lacks the drive and discipline to turn a big game on its head, which is what Solskjaer's team really needs.
United, at this moment, are better with Pogba than without him, but they really shouldn't be too worried if the flirting with Real steps up another level because he isn't a player who will be the difference between them winning the Premier League title or not.
Real may be overestimating his attributes, and Pogba similarly misreading what might await him in Madrid. If Pogba does end up in a Real shirt next season, the biggest winners might actually be United.