Sideline Cut: Mourinho fails if Pogba fails at United
Always a sense United wanted Pogba on the books without quite knowing why
Paul Pogba: he has in interviews breezily suggested that the public should forget about the record transfer fee. It doesn’t work like that. Photograph: Getty Images
In the days after Manchester United signed Paul Pogba, manager José Mourinho couldn’t resist baiting his rivals with the affected nonchalance he has patented. Pogba’s arrival at Old Trafford ended months of speculation as to where one of the most coveted names in football would go if sold by Juventus: he had been linked with Madrid and several breathless reports predicted he would join forces with “Pep” and the Manchester City experiment.
Instead, the Frenchman was lured to Manchester United for a then world record transfer fee of £89 million, a fantastical sum of money that drew uneasy remarks from Arsène Wenger and Jurgen Klopp.
“When I head some of the comments and heard some of the managers’ criticism I don’t think they are having this problem, as to have this problem you need to be at one of the top clubs in the world. So at Manchester United it can happen,” Mourinho explained with some glee.
Even at the time there was a nagging sense that Mourinho and United wanted Pogba on their books without quite knowing why they wanted him.
Throughout the calamitous seasons following the retirement of Alex Ferguson, when United’s onfield flinty hauteur quickly evaporated and teams stopped fearing Old Trafford, there was a whiff of desperation about United’s eagerness to remind the public that the club was among the world leaders.
Securing Mourinho as manager was the first part of that rehabilitation. Signing a player that the other monolithic clubs wanted – and having the resources to shell out £90 million – was presented as further proof of their ambition and fearlessness.
Mourinho purred when he spoke about his new acquisition at a press conference, tantalising United fans with his talk of a player who “has everything”. Pogba’s excellence with Juventus and his eye-catching turns for France at the European Championships left him the hottest commodity in the game. For those few weeks, at least, United were the envy of football.
Any player who came with such a fabulous price-tag attached to his contract would be highly scrutinised: the manager was keenly aware of this. “We need to get the best out of him, and that will be a process,” Mourinho said sagely at that early media conference. “So if he needs protection, I am here to protect.”
In the two years since that promise it often seems that Pogba’s most urgent need of protection has been from the whimsical nature and moodiness of Mourinho himself.
As a team United have fired only fitfully under Mourinho, and this season in particular he has exhibited most of his unhappiness and frustration with his inclusion and exclusion of the Frenchman.
United might have been better off had they just listened to Paul Scholes. He called it from the start. The Salford lad is the most delightfully downbeat Mancunian you could hope to come across apart from Corrie’s Steve McDonald, and is witheringly averse to the hype that now characterises the Premier League.
Scholes was still playing with United when Pogba was there as a youth player and so didn’t bother to disguise his scepticism after learning that his former club had paid almost £90 million to buy back a player they had sold for £1.5 million four seasons earlier. “For that sort of money you want someone who is going to score 50 goals a season, like Ronaldo or Messi. Pogba is nowhere near worth that sort of money – yet.”
Mourinho’s persistent pattern of sulkiness and forgiveness towards Pogba has suggested that privately he has come to share Scholes’s reservations. Pogba’s laconic style of playing and his laid-back demeanour haven’t helped his own cause. He has never looked desperate to prove himself to United.
The little video he sent out in February of last year, engaging Jesse Lingard in a daft, joyous dance in the dressing-room was, on one level, just a moment of exuberance between two young, hugely successful football stars. But their decision to post it on social media, when United were lying sixth in the league betrayed the fact that they just didn’t get where they were.
It seemed like a visual proof of just how quickly and thoroughly the Ferguson way had been eroded. Imagine the scene if Roy Keane circa 2000 had happened upon his team-mates dancing without a care in the world while their team languished in the Everton-region of the league table. Imagine the shaven head, black eyes blazing, the vein in the temple bulging as he went through them in bursts of Corkonian outrage.
Where was the ambition in that short, revealing vignette of Pogba and Lingard? Where was the burning want to lead United to its accustomed February league ranking? Where was the internal anger?
Lack of urgency
It could be that Pogba’s apparent lack of urgency is as frustrating for Mourinho as it is for the player’s growing number of sceptics. The relationship between the two men has become the running theme of a season in which United have been overshadowed: nowhere near as good as local rivals City in the league, nothing like as flamboyant or crowd-pleasing as Liverpool in Europe and criminally defensive in their approach to the bread-and-butter teams of winter.
At key points, and amidst a blaze of excited commentary and headlines, Mourinho has exhibited his displeasure and disappointment in Pogba through a series of substitution and omissions and gnomic remarks.
The problem is that not even two years have passed since Mourinho celebrated Pogba as the player who “has everything”. It was and remains Mourinho’s task the manager to harness those gifts: to gauge the needs and moods of a young athlete whose reputation has preceded him to an alarming degree; to create a role within the team that facilitates his strengths and, most of all, to back him to the hilt.
Pogba has in interviews breezily suggested that the public should forget about the transfer fee. It doesn’t work like that. Record signings are expected to stand out for the right reasons. Maybe the pressure of returning to United, the expectation that came with that fee, and Mourinho’s evident peevishness as the true spotlight remained fixed on Guardiola have all affected Pogba in ways the world does not see.
With the Premier League already done and dusted, and Liverpool preparing for an operatic evenings of football against Roma, United once more find themselves turning to the diminished FA Cup for a shot at late-season salvation. Because of the relentless nature of the coverage and the hyper-profitability within the Premier League, the talk has already begun to turn to next season. Media stories have been floated about Pogba’s increasing isolation within the United squad, and of how the club are willing to part ways with him again.
But if Pogba does believe in his future at Manchester United then his role in Saturday’s FA cup semi-final against Tottenham feels like a defining game.
And it is down to Mourinho to coax a late-season burst of brilliance from his struggling star, because if Pogba’s spectacular return to United ends in failure, it will always be remembered as Mourinho’s failure.