Neymar, Pogba, PSG and Manchester United: Does A Swap Deal Make Sense? - 11 minutes read

Neymar, Pogba, PSG and Manchester United

Discerning sports fans have been able to distract themselves with the Women’s World Cup, the Copa America, the Africa Cup of Nations, the Euro Under-21 Championships, the Cricket World Cup, the NBA Finals, the U.S. Open, tennis from Queens, croquet on the lawn, kicking a ball against a wall, watching raindrops run down a window and you get the point, literally anything to forget the nonsense that football becomes as soon as the club season stops.

In seasons without a World Cup or a European Championships, the transfer merry-go-round gets going early, with outlandish rumors and improbable moves dominating the back pages. Well, get the clown car started, start up the Benny Hill theme tune and try not to step on any rakes: silly season has officially begun. 

Social media has been abuzz with rumors that Paul Pogba and Neymar are about to switch places in what would be one of the biggest swap deals in football history. The sheer complexity of swapping two of the world’s most expensive players between two of the richest clubs, with gargantuan wages, image rights and endorsement deals makes the deal unlikely, but these things are never impossible. Where there is a will, of course, there is a way: and in this case, all four parties have an active interest in making the deal happen. Let’s take a tour of thedramatis personaeand ask just how realistic this deal is. 

We’ll begin with the individuals. It works for Paul Pogba for fairly obvious reasons: he’s from Paris and is, along with Kylian Mbappe, is the face of French football. Everyone and their dog knows that Pogba is less than happy at Manchester United, with rumors about his departure swirling for months. Like many franchise players, he has a limited range of options in terms of clubs that could afford his $370,000 a week wages but PSG are certainly one of them. Doubtless, Pogba's agent Mino Raiola will be licking his lips at the potential of negotiating such a huge deal, and as the man who brought Zlatan to Paris, he has form in this department.

Neymar is in the same boat. He was brought in to challenge for the Champions League, but PSG have managed to fall on their face spectacularly in his two seasons at the club—albeit while he was on the sidelines injured during the crucial games. Frequent clashes with Edinson Cavani have been a running narrative of his time in Paris, and while Neymar was signed as the franchise player (on franchise wages for a franchise, world record fee of $250 million), he is arguably no longer the main man, with Kylian Mbappe having overtaken him.

At United, Neymar would again be top billing: not just in Manchester, but probably in the whole Premier League, the most valuable league in the world. The potential for his personal brand to grow would be immense. Neymar’s preference would have been a move to Madrid—not going to happen now that they have picked up Eden Hazard—or back to Barcelona, but at 27, that is now unlikely unless Lionel Messi personally pushes for it. United would be a perfect fit, if they could shell out almost a million bucks a week for his wages.

Manchester United are probably the weak link in this deal. They are notably reticent to spend big money—compared to PSG and Manchester City at least—and have long been criticized for their lack of investment. Indeed, the Glazer family, who own the club, have consistently drawn money out of the club in a time when the standard of investment required to compete in the Premier League has risen. While it is a little out of step for recent United, they have been tempted in recent years to splash the cash: Pogba himself was a major outlay, while Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku also set them back a fair few quid. An option including getting shot of Pogba’s huge wages, especially if they could also offload Sanchez’s, would free up space to spend on Neymar - not to mention the commercial potentialities of picking up a player of his brand value. 

Those commercial valuations are the sort of thing that will certainly interest PSG. Neymar’s move to Paris back in 2017 proved that PSG were now players in the upper echelons of the transfer market, and gave their global brand a tremendous boost. Two years down the line, however, that has diminished and Neymar is no longer their biggest asset. The chance to recalibrate and relaunch around Paul Pogba, alongside his international teammate Kylian Mbappe, makes all the sense in the world. Pogba would be happy to share the limelight with his fellow Parisian Mbappe: indeed, he already does with the French national team. 

Bearing those four perspectives in mind, it all makes sense. So why won’t it happen? Well, there is the small question of money. United are one of the most prominent Adidas-sponsored clubs, with Pogba front and center in their branding; PSG are a flagship with Nike and Neymar their figurehead. While it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that they could swap, the image rights and endorsements aspect of the deal is a minefield.  

“I feel it doesn’t work when you look at it from the players perspective,” says Joe Thompson, a former pro player and now football brand consultant. “Even down to Neymar moving to Manchester, he’s not going to like the environment just like Alexis Sanchez didn’t. But the big sway for me is the Nike deal. For instance, Mbappe’s rise at PSG has been incredible and now he is their main guy for sponsorship, especially the collaboration PSG have done with Jordan. Neymar fits in with the brand of Barcelona and, with Messi’s career coming to an end, it just sits right age-wise.”

“It’s become very much like the NBA. I feel that at the end of the day, football is a business and it’s run by businessmen. The Qatari owners at PSG do have a lot of pull, but it's still got to work from a business aspect. I look at the likes of LeBron James’ deal going to LA Lakers, that all fits and money makes the world go round. Paul Pogba would ideally to return to Juventus, where he has a very good reputation and it also fits the sponsor side of things with Adidas at Juve.”

For United, the allure is obvious, but other targets might make more sense. “For any club to get near Neymar is massive,” says Thompson, “but I think from the commercial side of things, Gareth Bale is someone staring at you right in the face. He’s with Adidas and would be a win-win with image rights. Potentially Dybala from Juventus, too.”

“There have only been a few players that have gone against the grain: for example, Messi striking a deal with Adidas at Barcelona (though he did start off with Nike) and then Cristiano Ronaldo, a Nike athlete at Adidas-sponsored Real Madrid and Juventus. But he is just phenomenal and creates massive revenue wherever he goes.”

It should also be considered that, over a thousand words deep into this article, the question of whether either of the two would actually work on a football field in their new roles is yet to be mentioned. In the Premier League and the Champions League, the benefits of team with a coherent strategy and philosophy—see Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Barcelona, Ajax, Spurs, et al—have been made abundantly clear.

United and PSG are two of the teams that have resolutely refused to learn from this, preferring big-ticket stars above a team ethos. For all that they have had $100 million worth of Paul Pogba running around in midfield, United have Phil Jones and Chris Smalling at center back, which should be a higher priority than bringing in Neymar. Ditto PSG: their frontline of Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar is as good as any in Europe, but behind them they are decidedly average.

Naturally, the football aspect is far from the main considerations of the higher-ups at either club. PSG is essentially a marketing exercise for the Qatari government, and while they would like to win the Champions League, they would also like to increase their brand reach and PR value. That doesn’t come from signing defenders. 

United have been a consistent money-making machine for the Glazer family, but a litany of poor performances have begun to turn the fanbase against them, or more accurately, reminded the fans that they didn’t like the owners in the first place. It’s quite easy to make the argument that the United owners, who almost never attend games, aren’t remotely bothered how well the team does as long as the cash keeps coming in. Increasing the commercial reach of the brand, as would certainly happen if they signed Neymar, would help them secure more corporate partners, reach more people, sell more shirts and make more money.

There is a joke in the classic British comedyBlackadder Goes Forth, set during World War One, about how that war started: essentially everyone postured and postured, confident that there couldn’t be a war until it became too difficult not to have a war. This deal offers almost the reverse perspective: all four parties must deny everything and claim that it is all too complicated to sort out, until the moment that it happens. Everyone has an interest in making it happen, so happen it must—with the fact that it makes absolutely no footballing sense barely mentioned. 


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