The Premier League season is still three days away and Jose Mourinho has already started his barbs at Arsene Wenger, and all it took was the world record transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United to set the pair off. But when Wenger discussed the Pogba deal on Wednesday it was with real reverence and admiration for the young Frenchman.
“The value of a player is dependent on his talent, the expected strengthening of the team, his age and of course his resale value,” said Wenger, explaining why it had been a world-record fee for the 23-year-old Parisian. “When you speak about Pogba, it ticks all these boxes.”
Wenger has always been a big admirer of Pogba, and during Euro 2016 he went out of his way to defend Pogba from some excessive criticism. France has long obsessed over Pogba’s character, and after one moment at the end of the 2-0 defeat of Albania in Marseille Pogba was accused of a disrespectful gesture towards the crowd. Wenger leapt to Pogba’s defence.
“We forget he is only 23 and at that age it is difficult to be the leader of the French team,” Wenger said. “Players like [Michel] Platini and [Zinedine] Zidane were also questioned at that age. It’s a test of character in the career of a big player. It is part of the development from being a very good player to a great player. If we want to have a chance at winning the Euros, we must have confidence in Pogba.”
But there may be a slight tinge of regret when Wenger thinks about the man who will be driving Manchester United’s midfield this season. There was a time, at the start of Wenger’s Arsenal tenure, almost 20 years ago, when he was better connected in France than any other coach in England. That is how he could sign the cream of French talent: Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry, players who helped to win him the 1998, 2002 and 2004 Premier League titles.
Arsenal – transfer ins and outs
IN: Granit Xhaka
Former Club: Borussia Monchengladbach. Fee: £35m. Arsenal’s only major signing of the summer is also one of the biggest in history with Swiss midfielder Xhaka adding steal to their midfield.
IN: Takuma Asana
Former Club: Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Fee: Undisclosed. Gunners supporters were outraged when, amid rumours of signing Jamie Vardy from Leicester, they instead signed unknown striker Asana from Japan.
OUT: Mikel Arteta
New club: Retired. Fee: None. Now at coach at Manchester City, the Spaniard hopes to learn the craft of management from pep Guardiola.
OUT: Tomas Rosicky
None: Released. Fee: None. A loyal servant to the Gunners, Rosicky is still looking for a new club after being let go this summer.
OUT: Mathieu Flamini
New club: None. Fee: Released. Eyebrows were raised when the Frenchman returned to the Emirates but Wenger could always rely on his talents.
OUT: Wellington Silva
New club: Fluminense. Fee: Undisclosed. The young Brazilian never really forced his way into Wenger’s thinking before a return to Fluminense.
The problem with being a revolutionary coach, though, is that others catch up. And the story of the second half of Wenger’s Arsenal tenure, from the 2006 Champions League final onwards, is that other managers have done what he used to do, rubbing out his competitive advantage.
That is why in 2009, when a 16-year-old Pogba was trying to wriggle out of his deal at Le Havre, it was not Arsenal he went to. Sir Alex Ferguson knew about Pogba too, and Manchester United moved fastest. They secured his signature, and even though he was only at United for three years, it was enough to forge the connection that was renewed at record-breaking cost this week.
It is tempting to speculate what might have happened had a teenage Pogba joined Arsenal instead. He would surely have made it into the first team, given the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas in 2011, and Alex Song in 2012. He would probably have gone the same way and been eventually sold to a Real Madrid or Barcelona for a huge profit, but he would surely have improved Arsenal just as he has done for Juventus over recent seasons.
But this is one of the frustrations of Arsenal’s last few years. They are still capable of buying very well from Ligue 1, and their £10m purchase of Laurent Koscielny from Lorient in 2010 is probably the best buy of the second half of Wenger’s reign. But for every Koscielny now there is a Riyad Mahrez, a Ngolo Kante or a Paul Pogba. If there is a hint of frustration from Wenger when he sees the man from Roissy-en-Brie pulling on a different red shirt this season, he can be forgiven.