First item on Solskjaer’s agenda: how to solve a problem like Pogba
United have one of most expensive footballers in the world, and they don’t know what to do with him
Paul Pogba applauding United fans after the City match at Old Trafford. He has become emblematic of Manchester United’s new status as a lost football club. Photograph: Reuters/Phil Noble
It’s not hard to imagine Alex Ferguson leaning forward in his living room, clasping a glass of single malt and nodding in solemn agreement as he watched Roy Keane’s seething appraisal of Paul Pogba on Sky television before Wednesday night’s crushing Manchester derby. The Cork man remains the embodiment of Ferguson’s United because, for all of their differences, the Govan man and the Mayfield boy share a pathological hatred of losing. In that way they will always be father and son.
Keane is blessed with a sense of dramatic climax, and here was the perfect occasion for him to unleash the glowering, magnificent flashes of anger which deepens the conviction that he should go off and play Heathcliff at the Old Vic and be done with it.
He is at his best on stormy football nights like this: seething, savagely funny and generally despairing of the world.
And, of course, his bleak forecast came true. On the field Manchester United were acquiescent and ineffectual, while City behaved as champions elect, doing as they pleased at Old Trafford. They behaved as if Manchester United didn’t matter.
Pogba has become emblematic of Manchester United’s new status as a lost football club
In fact, the essential element within Keane had, you can be certain, long before half time left his studio seat from where he sat beside a nervy, tittering Gary Neville and an apparently stricken Joe Harte. His soul had already cut through the internal passageways of Old Trafford, and returned to take his rightful place in the dressing room.
There he would shave the head, haul out the trusty number 16 shirt, drop down for a hundred quick press-ups and then enter the arena, where a tremor of anticipation would electrify the stadium once he emerged from the tunnel.
His first contribution would be to clatter Barnardo Silva with an early if very late tackle that would leave the Portuguese midfielder sore and morally offended.
Then Keane would snarl at the referee, snarl at Pogba and Fred; he’d upend another City player – probably Vincent Kompany – with a similarly charged tackle, daring the referee to book him; he’d glare meaningfully across towards Pep Guardiola on the touchline to let him know that this-is-this and then slowly and inexorably he would come to loom over all the other prestige talent on the field while they, in turn, would wilt under his ferocity.
The lads in the commentary booths would feign outrage but they’d love it. In short, Keane would bring back football anarchy in the UK.
But because he is 47 years old now; because he no longer has the security pass to get into the Manchester United dressing room and because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer -probably -wouldn’t allow him to play, Keane had to content himself with pouring all of his discontent into his critique of Pogba’s pre-match video interview.
“I wouldn’t believe a word he says,” Keane spat.
He felt that Pogba was just going through the motions; routinely saying what he supposed he should be saying before replacing his headphones and strolling away with that sang-froid attitude that drives his growing army of critics up the wall.
Pogba has become emblematic of Manchester United’s new status as a lost football club. They have one of the most expensive footballers in the world and they don’t know what to do with him.
They don’t know where or how he should play. They don’t know whether he should stay at the club. They know he has brilliance but can’t be certain if, over the slog of an English winter, he is any good.
Back in the relatively optimistic days of autumn 2016, Manchester United’s manager José Mourinho offered a staunch defence of Pogba, then the club’s prize new signing from Juventus. The French man’s fluctuating performances had already led to quick conclusions that United had made a colossal mistake in spending so much money on this rangy French man who defied categorisation. Following a 4-0 win over Fenerbache, Mourinho weighed in, noting that in the eyes of his critics, Pogba went from “the worst player in the world to a great player in 48 hours”.
Whether to persist with Pogba and how to use him is his first critical decision
“Especially the Einsteins. The reality is that we know he is a very good player, and we know that he needs some time to show all his potential. I know Italian football very well and how they play. It is completely different than the Premier league. I am not saying we are better than them. I am just saying that we are different in the intensity, different in the space to play, different in the number of touches we can give him on the ball, different in the time you have to decide. Everything is different, and he needs time to adapt.”
It was the “Einsteins” part that was remembered and recorded as one of Mourinho’s lines in caustic dismissal. In fact, it was a prescient assessment of the difficulties facing Pogba as he tried to establish himself as the player around whom United would revolve.
The Mourinho of autumn 2016 was prepared to give his star time: two years on relations had irretrievably broken down between player and manager. Yet it was Mourinho who looked haggard and exhausted by the end, while Pogba drifted on in that languid seemingly unreachable state of his.
United’s 18/19 season lurched from grim to chaotic to farcical. They are in a perilous position. There is a growing sense now that Solskjaer, for all his positive vibes and Red Devils fervour, may not be the man to arrest the club’s slow slide into the pack.
Had United improbably beat City on Wednesday night, then Solskjaer’s emotional decision to bring the new generation back to The Cliff – the training ground where Cantona, where Best, where Keane once strode – would have been lauded. But they lost and instead it has been mocked. It may well be that Pogba’s thoughts on the venerable old training ground were limited to what a sheet-hole.
On Thursday Solskjaer predicted that Pogba would stay at United. For all the negative energy Pogba generates, he has been included in the PFA team of the season. Maybe that selection was just an elaborate ruse to drive Keane over the edge. But as Solskjaer watched his team become effectively invisible against City on Wednesday night, he had plenty of time to ponder the enormity of the task ahead of him.
In a fascinating podcast this week, John Giles and Eamon Dunphy, both former United players, chronicled the fortunes of managers from Matt Busby to the current day. It’s mostly a story of hope dashed and spirit broken: since 1945 only two men have been truly successful at the club. The job broke most of the others.
Now Solskjaer, the man precisely nobody was predicting as manager at the start of the season, faces into the brutal reality of trying to build a team reflective of United’s standing in the English game.
Whether to persist with Pogba and how to use him is his first critical decision. He has to do all this with so many of his former team-mates – Keane, Scholes, Neville, Ferdinand, Butt – all about him; ghosts on the television screen.
When he was given the job on a permanent basis, Solskjaer described managing Manchester United as the “ultimate dream”. Already scary monsters intrude.