What’s that odd feeling? Sympathy for Mourinho amid Pogba’s malaise
Midfielder should look at his own performances before openly criticising manager
Paul Pogba shakes hands with manager José Mourinho after his substitution during the Champions League match between Young Boys and Manchester United in Bern on September 19th. Photograph: Getty Images
I know it’s over. And it never really began. But in my heart it was so real. Paul, José. It’s been two years now. There are times in a relationship like this when you just have to take a step back and accept that things aren’t working out. Although, for the sake of the team, who really shouldn’t be asked to choose between you, we could at least try to be civilised about this.
Another Manchester United wobble, another public snipe between José Mourinho and Paul Pogba. United may be listing a little this season, but there are some things that do seem certain. The dysfunctional dynamic between manager and star player isn’t doing anyone any good.
And beyond this Pogba in particular might want to think twice about asking people to look any more closely at his own role and his own contribution to an evolving team – because it’s not always a pretty sight.
There has already been a degree of spluttering over Pogba’s insurrectionist comments after the draw with Wolves. Pogba may be right to have concerns about United’s attack. But this kind of talk is toxic in public.
Its net effect is to make Manchester United less rather than more likely to win. It gives the impression of a player thinking of his own value and his own reputation, looking to define the narrative around his own poor performance, rather than giving absolute attention to the cause he is being paid £290,000 a week to pursue.
In Pogba’s defence there was some provocation. It was veiled, snidey and largely overlooked at the time, but Mourinho did appear to start this episode with some comments that might have been a spill-over from the post-match dressingroom.
“I think Wolves played how I like to play, which is like every game is a World Cup final,” Mourinho told the press. “That is the attitude that I like my team to have. They had it and we didn’t.”
World Cup final you say. Hmmm. Who does that make you think of? How many of the United squad have just played in a World Cup final? Clue: only one. He plays in midfield. And his fine performance in that World Cup final was used as a stick with which to beat Mourinho over the summer. Never forget, José, never forget.
It seems clear that this level of hostility is unsustainable. It is also a great shame for obvious reasons. Firstly, because Pogba is an excellent footballer, albeit one who hasn’t been able to produce his best often enough, or to fit into the patterns of the team Mourinho is trying to build.
And secondly, it hasn’t always been like this. Only last week there were warm words on both sides. Mourinho does seem to like and admire Pogba. As early as October 2016 he was appearing on TV like an angry dad at parents’ evening haranguing the “Einsteins” of punditry for questioning Pogba’s performances, calling for time to adapt from the rhythms of Serie A.
Pogba has adapted. He has had some excellent games; just not enough of them, and not enough in the José way. So much so that when he speaks with such open disdain about his manager it is hard to avoid a strange and unexpected feeling. What is it, this peculiar emotion? Hang on. Yes, it appears to be sympathy for Mourinho. And he does deserve some here.
To date Pogba has done very little at Manchester United to justify his own comments. The fact is in the hierarchy of elite Manchester United midfielders of the last quarter-century his own position is closer to Juan Sebastián Verón than Roy Keane right now.
Even Pogba’s own complaint about a lack of attacking flair could be seen as a decent argument for dropping himself. Perhaps a star, forward-surging central midfielder who has never scored more than eight league goals in a season might be a part of that problem. For all his medals Pogba still looks most of the time like a wave waiting to break, a grand talent en route to finding its most potent expression.
He has been good this season, showing his excellent passing range and ball-carrying craft. But the fact is Pogba just isn’t as effective as he might be. His passing and movement and control of a game are not as good as, say, Kevin De Bruyne when he plays in the central midfield area.
No shame in this: few reach that level. But Pogba acts and speaks like an outright star, so he must expect to be judged as one. And among star players he’s not as effective or as valuable to his team as Eden Hazard, Mo Salah, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Eriksen, Virgil van Dijk, David Silva, David de Gea or Harry Kane. Is he a better Premier League central midfielder than Mousa Dembélé or Ilkay Gündogan? Is he as effective a presence right now as James Milner? Or Rúben Neves? The answer is: probably not. Or not to any degree you’d notice.
Often his best moments, like the lovely touch for United’s opening goal on Saturday, are simultaneously undermined. Why would Mourinho be annoyed at Pogba giving the ball away in the lead up to Wolves’ equaliser? Because after six Premier League games no central midfielder in any team has been dispossessed more often than Pogba, or taken more unsuccessful touches.
Pogba is yet to make a single interception. Sixty-eight midfielders have made more tackles per 90 minutes, including Fulham’s Tom Cairney, who is a throwback to the strolling-playmaker golden age of the 1960s, and Bernardo Silva, whose manager’s best quote so far in England is “what is tackles?”
If Mourinho really is worried about Pogba giving the ball away, not imposing himself and not working enough for the team, then maybe it’s because he gives the ball away, doesn’t impose himself and doesn’t work enough for the team.
What does seem certain is that the sniping has to stop. It is no secret the possibility was explored of Pogba leaving United in the summer. He may leave in January should the chance arise.
At which point the most likely outcome is that Pogba will move to one of Europe’s serial champions. And that once there he will succeed to a degree that he becomes another on the list of A-list Mourinho failures, those who bloomed by getting away from the grey defensive master.
Pogba will produce those moments of wonderful football, will become a midweek star of the Champions League thrashings for Barcelona or Real Madrid. He will look better with better players around him, and in a team that win the large majority of their games, as was the case at Juventus.
It is just a shame that so far a different kind of challenge, in a different league, with a different set of tactics has not seen the best of him.