Imagine if Paul Pogba hadn't left Man United - he'd have been another Cleverly or Welbeck
As Pogba prepares to face Real Madrid for Juventus, the experiences of Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck at Manchester United provide a sharp contrast
Just imagine if Paul Pogba had been persuaded to sign a new contract at Manchester United in the summer of 2012 rather than walk away from Old Trafford.
Instead of preparing for a Champions League semi-final with Juventus against Real Madrid on Wednesday, the French midfielder could have been warming the bench at Arsenal or helping Aston Villa avoid relegation from the Premier League.
Granted, either of those scenarios would be an unlikely career map for Pogba, but the same could have been said for Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley three years ago and look where they have ended up.
Back in 2012, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were being groomed as the long-term successors to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the heart of United’s defence, with a similar axis becoming the norm for England, but while the pair have recently forged a partnership under Louis van Gaal, there is a sense that is has come about by accident rather than design.
Pogba, meanwhile, has developed into one of world football’s hottest properties in Turin, with Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain all falling over themselves in a bid to win the race to sign the 22-year-old this summer.
United would also love to take Pogba back and correct the mistake they made, under Alex Ferguson’s management back in 2012, but now that he has the world at his feet, it may be that Pogba saved his career by leaving Old Trafford in the first place.
Having been signed by United in controversial circumstances from Le Havre in October 2009, when Fifa ultimately ruled against the French club’s claim that United had ‘poached’ the then-sixteen-year-old, Pogba quickly became a prominent figure in the under-age teams at Old Trafford before being handed his debut as a substitute in a League Cup tie against Leeds at Elland Road in September 2011.
Six substitute appearances later, he was off to Juventus due to a lack of opportunities – a situation not helped by Paul Scholes’s retirement U-turn in January 2012 – and, no doubt, a healthy financial package on offer in Italy.
But while United clearly allowed a genuine talent to carelessly slip through their fingers, the progress – or lack of – made by those young players just ahead of Pogba in the pecking order suggest that staying at Old Trafford would have offered no guarantees that he would be the player he is now.
United continue to pride themselves on the Busby Babes and the Class of 92, highlighting both as proof of the club’s commitment to youth.
But the inconvenient truth for United is that their recent record in terms of developing young players is poor, with Cristiano Ronaldo the last teenager to truly justify his potential at the club.
Cleverley was billed as ‘potentially the best midfielder in Britain’ by Ferguson in December 2011. Two years earlier, the then-United manager urged Fabio Capello to select an 18-year-old Danny Welbeck for the World Cup in South Africa because the forward was a ‘certainty to make it to the highest level.’
Cleverley will leave United as a free agent when his contract expires next month after spending this season on loan at Villa, while Welbeck was discarded by Louis van Gaal last September and sold to Arsenal because, according to the Dutchman, he didn’t score enough goals.
Welbeck is currently injured, but even when fit in recent weeks, he has struggled to claim a starting place in Arsene Wenger’s team.
United believed that both Cleverley and Welbeck were destined for stardom, yet it never happened.
Both have carved out good careers and become established Premier League performers, but they have not lived up to the hype.
Pogba, on the other hand, has realised his early promise and developed into a player who might just prove that the ‘new Patrick Vieira’ billing was accurate when it was bestowed on him as a teenager.
Perhaps he would have become a star wherever he played, but playing alongside the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal at Juventus has certainly accelerated his development.
Pogba has made 123 first-team appearances for Juventus in three seasons, performing in the Champions League and Serie A for the serial Italian champions and also playing for France at last year’s World Cup.
Would he have made a similar number of appearances for United?
Possibly, but unlikely, because the experience of Cleverley and Welbeck points to a reluctance to really throw the youngsters in at the deep end at United.
Anderson was another teenage star who failed to make it at United, despite being billed as one of the best young talents in the world when he arrived from Porto in 2007, while Wilfried Zaha came and went without a look-in.
Adnan Januzaj is another who now faces an uncertain career path having seen his own progress stall after a bright first season at United.
So while United will clearly regret losing Pogba, the player himself may be the one who really got lucky.
Had he stayed, he may have been another Cleverley or Welbeck.