Richie Sadlier: Jose Mourinho isn’t making the most of Paul Pogba
Perhaps United’s boss didn’t know what he was signing when he paid €100m for him
Mourinho just hasn’t been able to coach Paul Pogba into the type of player he wants, nor has he found a consistent way of organising the team to maximise his talents. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
During a chat with an assistant manager of a Championship club a few years ago, I was taken aback by something he said about one of his players.
On the morning of their most recent game, the player had declared himself unfit to play. I think it was a knee complaint that kept him out, but it was the assistant manager’s take on it all that amazed me. He didn’t dwell on the specifics of the knee injury or what may have caused it, but he had strong views about the player’s character based on his withdrawal.
“You just wouldn’t get that from white players,” he asserted, which is why I remember the otherwise unremarkable conversation. I can’t recall how I responded but our phone-call ended shortly afterwards. That he was a racist was news to me, but his views on players putting their own welfare ahead of the team was more than familiar.
The player’s failing was his unwillingness to put the interests of the team ahead of his own. Risking further injury is part of the job, so it was assumed he should have played through the pain. That he didn’t was enough for the assistant manager to assassinate his character.
Ignoring entirely his assertion that good character can be established in terms of a person’s colour – which is clearly nonsense – the insinuation was one I’ve encountered in football many times. And declaring yourself unavailable shortly before a game often comes with consequences.
Paul Pogba, if Jose Mourinho’s words are to be taken at face value, suffered for that very reason on Wednesday night. He was excluded from Manchester United’s starting line-up in Seville. Pogba had pulled out of last Saturday’s game against Huddersfield due to illness, creating doubts about his fitness and readiness according to Mourinho.
You might think the knockout rounds of the Champions League would be exactly the kind of fixture you’d want your £89 million (€100 million) signing to play in, but Mourinho thought otherwise. Despite Pogba declaring himself fit and available, Mourinho did not have room for the Frenchman in his three-man midfield. He’s too good a player to be left out for purely footballing reasons. This was obviously an attempt by Mourinho to make a wider point.
Exactly what point he is trying to make, though, is a little unclear. It may simply be a power-play, as has been suggested by many. Pogba is too much of an individual, too focused on self-interest and his own career, so Mourinho needs to show him he’s boss and that nobody is bigger than the team.
I could see why that might explain his absence from United’s team against Huddersfield a fortnight earlier, but last Wednesday in Spain wasn’t the time or place for such statements.
It may have been retribution for pulling out of the game on Saturday. Maybe Mourinho doubted that Pogba’s claims of illness were genuine, or perhaps he didn’t believe him when he said he had fully recovered by Wednesday.
It may have been a continuation of the policy that has seen him subbed twice and dropped once during the three games prior to that. It could well be a sign of a wider deterioration in the relationship between the two.
Whatever way you try to explain it, though, it’s a failure of Mourinho’s management that the squad’s most expensive signing cannot find a place in his team in the most important game of their season, though I can’t imagine Mourinho sees himself as the problem.
It is true that Pogba has yet to make the kind of impact expected of him when he first signed. And yes, there are times when he appears to play with little sense of responsibility or positional discipline. He looks exposed when he is selected as one of a midfield pairing and appears to be almost devoid of defensive instincts at times.
All of this should have been known before the club spent so much to sign him, and maybe it was. But Mourinho just hasn’t been able to coach him into the type of player he wants, nor has he found a consistent way of organising the team to maximise his talents.
Playing him on the left of a midfield three would appear to be one solution, but he had that option in Seville and he chose to leave him on the bench. For a manager who so often demands to be given the money to buy new players, that he’s failing so badly to work with the club’s record signing doesn’t reflect well at all.
He’s dropped him twice in the last month. If things continue to deteriorate between them, you’d imagine Pogba will be leaving the club for a second time very soon. Mourinho may claim that to be a victory in this battle, but he’ll have weakened Manchester United in the process.
Mourinho doesn’t need any more time to impose his personality or his methods at Old Trafford. His footprints are everywhere already. This is what he does. This is the endgame. The style of football his team is playing is the only football he knows how to coach.
Give him another £300 million to spend and that won’t change. He still won’t care for the club’s traditions of playing fast attacking football. He won’t desist from constantly creating internal conflicts. It was like this at Chelsea and before that, at Real Madrid. You sign up to this the moment you hire him as the manager.
Either Mourinho didn’t know what he was signing when he paid £89 million for Pogba, or he has failed to improve his game since he arrived. If reaching Manchester City’s level is something Mourinho is hoping to achieve, he needs to realise he has a part in his side lagging so far behind. And the gap won’t get any smaller if he continues to pick fights with his star players.