Manchester United bragged they scouted 804 right-backs in their process that ended with the signing of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Scouts first clapped eyes on Alex Telles at Galatasaray in 2014 and United started monitoring Amad in 2016.
However watertight United’s scouting network is, some are bound to slip through the net. In 2015, they invested £58million in Anthony Martial while Leicester bought N’Golo Kante from Caen for £6m. A year later, Paul Pogba returned for a world record £89m and Chelsea spent £35m to prise Kante from Leicester.
Martial was attached to Monaco, third-place finishers in Ligue 1 in 2014-15, whereas Caen came 13th. Pogba rejoined United in 2016, when Didier Deschamps selected Kante in the France squad for the first time. At the time of Martial and Pogba’s transfers, few would have opined United had bought the wrong Frenchman.
Kante is now a European Championship short of collecting the full club and international set of honours: Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, and World Cup winner’s medals have dangled around his neck. He was the man of the match against Manchester City in Porto.
United are still so stung by missing out on Raphael Varane 10 years ago they are discussing signing him this summer. Ryan Giggs scouted Kylian Mbappe and felt he was gettable for £5million.
Varane has already left a legacy at United without playing for them. The academy bought French teenagers Hannibal Mejbri and Willy Kambwala for €13m in successive summers. In 2018, the United website advertised for a ‘First Team Scout’ role in France ‘to identify world-class and emerging talent for the club’.
Youth scout Mathieu Seckinger unearthed Mejbri and Kambwala while the suitably named Romain Poirot replaced David Friio to identify first-team targets. Friio, who first met Pogba when he was 15 at Le Havre, was ‘livid’ at United’s handling of Pogba’s contract discussions in 2012.
At the Elysee Presidential Palace where France celebrated the 2018 World Cup triumph, Pogba took the mic and started a rendition of Kante’s chant:
“He’s short, he’s nice,
“He stopped Leo Messi,
“But we all know he’s a cheater,
Kante is a pocket dynamo who pockets the good and the great. Pogba said Kante is his toughest opponent and they have engaged in some absorbing duels.
Kante had the edge after they transferred for a combined £126m, scoring in Chelsea’s league and cup wins at Stamford Bridge, with Pogba more aggressive in United’s authoritative win at Old Trafford.
Pogba’s silk and steel trumped Kante for the decisive second goal in United’s 2-0 FA Cup win at Chelsea in February 2019 and he ran amok with Kante benched in the 4-0 victory at the start of 2018-19. Overall, Pogba has four wins to Kante’s three with both starting.
The international teammates are practically opposites in every way: blue and red, little and large, defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder, introvert and extrovert, bargain buy and marquee buy, Mini and Rolls-Royce.
At a celebratory ceremony at the Stade de France in 2018, Pogba danced toward the World Cup trophy as if he was John Travolta. Kante bashfully applauded fans.
It is a pity for United – and Chelsea – they are unable to pair them at club level. Chelsea’s chances are more auspicious as Pogba’s deal ticks towards its final year but Kante’s contract only runs until 2023.
When asked if he could name a better midfielder in the world than Kante, the Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta replied: “A straightforward answer to that question – no.”
The Gallic midfielders were opposites again last week: winner and loser. Pogba, now 28, still poses a conundrum for United. He has played his best football off the left or from the left of a midfield three yet Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is insistent on a 4-2-3-1 formation. He mistakenly relocated Pogba to the middle two for the Europa League final.
Pogba may start there for France during the Euros, as he did in Russia three years ago. The closed environment of an international tournament reinforced Pogba’s focus. “I hope he understands why he was very good,” Mourinho remarked.
“That’s the point about his performance level and contribution to a winning team: it is to understand why he was so good – especially in the second part of the competition, where he was absolutely brilliant.”
Pogba thrived in a 4-2-3-1 at the start of his second campaign back with United, given licence to raid while Nemanja Matic held the fort. United have since neglected the pivot department of their midfield, Solskjaer often depending on Scott McTominay and Fred, an axis unusually broken up in Gdansk.
“Paul is probably one of the most scrutinised players in the game and you’re talking about a guy who’s been to a Champions League final, European finals, won the World Cup,” Owen Hargreaves told the Manchester Evening News last week.
“The guy in the right team, when the balance is good, he functions – he’s proven that. You can’t deny that. With France, he has Kante and [Blaise] Matuidi and maybe they covered some of his deficiencies. Hopefully, you can go and find a guy.”
It is utterly unrealistic for United to finance moves for a marquee defender, midfielder and forward in the same window. Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho would set them back £140million. Declan Rice would command a larger fee than both.
The area where they have to get creative is in defensive midfield. Deschamps called up a young French midfielder earlier this season in Rennes’ Eduardo Camavinga, who failed to make the 26-man cut for the Euro squad, and is represented by the voluble agent Jonathan Barnett.
Ryan Gravenberch, Ajax’s 19-year-old heir to Frenkie de Jong, would be a bold option. Yves Bissouma has two years left on his Brighton contract and United turned to a French-bred Premier League holding midfielder in Morgan Schneiderlin in 2015.
The senior United players in the dressing room soon concluded he was not good enough and Ed Woodward later cited Schneiderlin as a signing who ‘wasn’t a Manchester United player’. The scouting process was not thorough back then.