Paul Pogba, the most expensive footballer in history after signing for United for a record £89m, is a midfielder who can do it all. In a single game he might score a screamer, demonstrate defensive diligence and bamboozle an opponent with tricks while simultaneously outrunning and outworking him.
But according to industry experts, United may have been salivating at both visions of Pogba’s pocket-knife set of skills and a unique, powerful personal brand when handing over the cash to Juventus.
The 23-year-old’s haircuts, outfits and dab goal celebrations — a dance that represents a literal nod to Pogba’s love of hip hop culture — have become just as important ingredients as his tricks and goals in building up a social media following that could help the club drive future commercial revenue.
When Andy Sutherden, global head of sports and partnership marketing at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, described Pogba offering value for United as “the ultimate utility player”, he wasn’t referring to an ability to fill in at right-back whenever Matteo Darmian takes a knock.
— adidas (@adidas) August 8, 2016
“In old money it means he can play anywhere on the pitch, in new money it means he can be a much bigger asset to us than just a football player” he told City A.M.
“He is the embodiment of bold individualism. And that is so important when we think about what kids are getting hooked on.
“His magnetism in other areas — music, style — means that he becomes a magnet for younger fans that also have multiple interests beyond just football. He is an individual that can connect with youth on social media and the way that youngsters flirt from one interest to another. An individual that can actually connect with youth in a meaningful and a relevant way has a currency for a football club.”
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Manchester United are not the only global sports institution to recognise that currency.
United kit manufacturer Adidas, who signed the 23-year-old to a $44m (£33.4m) endorsement deal earlier this year, used affiliated rap artists Pusha T and Snoop Dogg, rather than one of their many famous footballers, to welcome Pogba to “the family” and commissioned world renowned fashion photographer Juergen Teller to shoot the player for a one-off book titled "This Is Pogboom".
In announcing Pogba's long-awaited return to Old Trafford was finally a done deal, they put him together with grime artist Stormzy to create a mini music video for social media.
“I needed a brand that would give me the space to express myself and explore new frontiers,” explained Pogba, later adding in a separate interview: “They [Adidas] want me to make an impression on culture too.”
What might sound like unwanted distractions steering Pogba away from the football field are more likely to be added attributes driving up his price tag.
“It will definitely affect the fee”, says Antony Marcou, chief executive of sports marketing group SportsRevolution.
“All of Pogba’s social media profile analysis would end up going into a sponsorship deck. There’ll be discussions along the lines of ‘at this level we’ve got this amount of commitments, x amount of player appearances, x amount of tweets and Facebook posts that we need to deliver the Chevrolet deal.’ That would be taken into consideration.”
Sutherden agrees: “Mourinho will be used to working with players that are obligated to do things to drive commercial revenue for the club. Players like Pogba have a commercial return that the manager might only be able to fully contextualise by understanding that there is a revenue share paid back to the club that helps pay for his salary.”
United have over 70 commercial partners across the globe, all of whom will be hungry for a popular millennial star like Pogba to associate with their brand.
Chevrolet, who pay United £47m per year for the privilege to host their logo on the famous shirt, used Pogba’s former academy teammate Jesse Lingard for a “Dab Univesity” social media campaign in which the young winger performs Pogba’s preferred dance.
Such campaigns will be even more valuable to both brand and United now Pogba is on board. The midfielder has received 2.3m social media followers in the last month alone — compared to Lingard’s total of 1.1m — according to social media firm Brandtix who combine performance stats with the number of social media follows and the sentiment of all social media posts regarding a particular player to come up with an overall brand score.
Mesut Ozil, James Rodriguez and Andres Iniesta are the only midfielders with a higher ranking on Brandtix’s platform.
“He’s absolutely killing it at the moment. He’s by far the most valuable Serie A player on our platform,” chief executive Jon Rosenblatt told City A.M.
“This week [Last week of July 2016] alone he sits behind Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi and Neymar as the player with the highest amount of new fans made this week.
“We’ve seen his brand value increase by five per cent just over the last three months. Given the fact there’s been relatively little football over that period, if we start to track from the middle of August through to the end of December and he’s playing for Manchester United every week, his brand value will continue to increase.”
For United fans, the shooting, dribbling, scoring and defending that Pogba aims to master will provide the biggest test of whether he can live up to the price tag. But the United commercial team won’t want him to stop dabbing and Instagramming along the way.