If Paul Pogba was to leave Manchester United this summer, this was always how he was likely to go about it. At a promotional event in Tokyo on Sunday morning, Pogba made a first public declaration of his desire to move elsewhere; the public declaration Real Madrid have been waiting for.
“After this season and everything that happened this season, with my season being my best season as well, I think for me it could be a good time to have a new challenge somewhere else,” he said. “I am thinking of this: To have a new challenge somewhere else.”
It is an unsurprising development but an important one. Pogba was unsettled last summer but never publicly said so. He only ever hinted at the breakdown in relations with former manager Jose Mourinho. He described playing for Madrid as a “dream” in March, but in response to a leading question, and he was hardly the first player to ever do so.
Sunday’s remarks, on the other hand, were the first of their kind: this was the player himself, on-the-record, admitting he sees his future somewhere other than Old Trafford. His words only confirmed what those who know the midfielder well have been saying for some time, but it is significant that the world should finally hear them come from his own mouth.
Despite Pogba agitating for a move as long as a year ago, senior Old Trafford sources have always been adamant that their record signing, most naturally-gifted player and prize commercial asset will not be sold. Pogba effectively has three years remaining on his contract. United are under no pressure to sell.
That is why Pogba has decided to go public. And given United stood firm following his remarks, expressing confidence that he will still be their player come the new season, Pogba may have to go further still. He will soon embark on a holiday to Los Angeles. Expect one or two more choice words to nearby reporters and the odd coded Instagram post.
But Pogba’s future will be just one saga that Ed Woodward, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and other senior figures at Old Trafford will have to contend with during an already difficult summer. It should not be forgotten that mere days before United's record signing publicly stated a desire to leave, their second most-expensive player did the same.
Romelu Lukaku is not as central to Solskjaer’s plans, though his departure would represent another disappointing big-money signing and leave another gap unlikely to be filled. Lukaku says he has made a decision on his future, though Internazionale need to submit an acceptable offer before there can be further progress.
The future of United’s most consistent player is also at stake. Contract negotiations with David de Gea are yet to be resolved, with the United goalkeeper entering the final year of his contract. If United do not let De Gea leave this summer and instead hope for a breakthrough, as is expected, then their best player will be perilously close to leaving for nothing.
Juan Mata will be a free agent in a fortnight unless he signs a new contract. Ander Herrera, a player Solskjaer wanted to stay and one of the better performers last season, has already left. And despite confirmation of Daniel James’ arrival from Swansea City last week, there are still plenty of gaps in the squad to be filled.
A right-back, centre-half, two central midfielders and a wide forward of some description are all required. They are unlikely to arrive before the club’s search for its first technical director is resolved, meaning that the same recruitment process which floundered last summer must deliver a significant re-build 12 months later.
But the biggest problem is Pogba, whose agitation for a move has surely only just begun. After all, having already spent somewhere in the region of £180m this summer, bringing Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard and Ferland Mendy to the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid will not attempt to sign the midfielder at any cost.
Florentio Perez, the Madrid president, and his negotiator-in-chief Jose Angel Sanchez are unlikely to meet a price at which United would reluctantly do business. A fee in the region of £150m would not be palatable to a club whose squad is already bloated and who have struggled more and more of late to balance their books.
The price needs to come down and Madrid therefore need Pogba to kick up a stink. It could well be that in six weeks’ time, through all the tricks and techniques of the modern transfer saga, momentum behind a move has grown significantly and United are forced into a difficult and almost unenviable decision.
You either lose your most valuable player at a less-than-optimum price or you keep him, disgruntled, unhappy and most likely underperforming. The first option would be embarrassing, especially for a club which still lays claim to being the biggest in the world. But the second option could see what is now sure to be a tumultuous summer run into an equally tumultuous season.