Paul Pogba remains Manchester United’s all-time record signing. Seven years later, it’s difficult to argue that he proved a success at Old Trafford.
The France international showed lots of promise in his debut season at Old Trafford, shining as Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils won the League Cup and Europa League, but he often struggled for consistency and flattered to deceive as the club went trophyless in the five subsequent years, eventually returning to Juventus on a free transfer in 2022.
“We know first of all that the player belongs to another club, which is not a small club. It is also a big club, a club with economical power to fight for their best players, to try and keep their best players,” Mourinho told reporters during the long-running transfer saga in the summer of 2016.
“Apart from that we know other clubs are also involved and for us it is not kind of ‘are we going to win the race or to lose the race?’. It is not a race, it is just the market.
“And when you go to the market, you have other options. You cannot focus on one, so we are in a very comfortable situation.”
How might things have gone at Old Trafford had United signed someone else instead that summer? We’ve identified five midfielders that United reportedly targeted as alternatives to Pogba back in 2016.
Reports from the French media suggested that Manchester United viewed Sissoko as a back-up option to Pogba in the summer of 2016.
The midfielder had just been relegated with Newcastle but offered a reminder of his quality by featuring prominently – alongside Pogba – in France’s run to the final of Euro 2016.
Sissoko ended up leaving Tyneside and signing for Tottenham. Three years later he and former Magpies team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum faced off in the Champions League final.
He did alright for a time in North London, and made over 100 appearances for Spurs, but ultimately didn’t do enough to make United look back with any regret on missing out.
Nowadays the 34-year-old is turning out for Ligue 1 side Nantes.
Widespread media reports in 2016 identified Matuidi as United’s clear preference if they failed to land their top target. But they did and the midfielder ended up staying put in Paris.
Another member of France’s midfield at Euro 2016, Matuidi would later write his name into French football folklore by starring alongside Pogba and N’Golo Kante as Les Bleus lifted the World Cup in 2018.
Matuidi eventually left PSG, replacing Pogba in the midfield engine room at Juventus, in 2017. Between the two European powerhouses, he won seven of eight league titles between 2012 and 2020. He retired in 2022 after a brief and not especially successful stint with Inter Miami.
Manchester United reportedly scouted Sanches whilst he was a teenager at Benfica, but Bayern Munich gazumped them to his signature in May 2016 – getting in there nice and early before his stock went through the roof with his starring role in Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph.
“Renato had an offer from Manchester United,” former Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge explained later that summer.
“But I heard, one day before our game against Atletico that the transfer wasn’t closed due to United not having a coach.
“We acted immediately. We invited Benfica’s president and the player’s agent to Madrid. The environment after the game wasn’t good, but we agreed the transfer that night and closed the deal with a handshake.”
Ultimately this probably isn’t one that will keep Ed Woodward up at night. The one-time wonderkid never made the grade at Bayern, whilst the only thing of note he ended up doing in English football was passing to the advertising hoarding whilst on loan at Swansea City.
Seven years later and Mourinho has his man; Sanches is currently on loan at Roma from parent club PSG.
Throwback to when Renato Sanches tried passing to the Carabao logo pic.twitter.com/ieS8BNmyN8
— Average Striker (@AverageStriker) August 30, 2021
“We quite like Cesc Fabregas,” Ferguson reportedly told his successor David Moyes as they discussed the future at Old Trafford.
United most famously pursued the Spanish midfielder during the summer of 2013, but they failed to land him. How different might the Moyes era have been had they got that one over the line?
Louis van Gaal wasn’t interested the following year and Fabregas ended up returning to England to sign for Chelsea. It was at Stamford Bridge that he arguably produced the best football of his career, particularly under Mourinho in the Blues’ 2014-15 title-winning campaign.
The Guardian reported that Mourinho was keen to reunite with the playmaker in 2016. But they ended up signing Pogba instead. Fabregas stayed put at Chelsea and ended up winning another league title, an FA Cup – beating United in the final – and a Europa League.
Of course, Matic did end up teaming back up with Mourinho at Old Trafford, signing in 2017 and slotting in alongside Pogba.
But the Serbian had been linked with Manchester United a year earlier, and even went as far as telling Antonio Conte he wanted to leave.
We don’t have to imagine how this one went. In reality he was functional enough, and wouldn’t have made almost 200 appearances for the club were he just a clogger, but the fact his stint coincided with a barren five-year trophy drought probably wasn’t entirely coincidental.