Ken Early: All not looking rosy between Pogba and Mourinho
Gifted Frenchman’s natural position is clearly not as a shield in front of back four
Jose Mourinho issues instructions to Paul Pogba during the recent defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Photograph: Ian Kingston/AFP/Getty
Jose Mourinho has lately sought to give the impression that he is at peace with the world at large: the best-behaved manager in the technical area, the friendliest to fourth officials, the most respectful of spirited opposing teams.
Given Mourinho’s well-documented propensity for conflict you did wonder what room this new, balanced persona left for his more aggressive energies. It now looks as though they are being channelled into a confrontation with the club’s biggest star.
For the second time in three league matches, Paul Pogba was substituted with United trailing in a game they went on to lose. These should be the moments when United would look to a player of Pogba’s ability to drag them back into the contest, but against both Tottenham and Newcastle, Mourinho decided that his team were better off without their most expensive player.
Yesterday Pogba was taken off immediately after Newcastle had scored what proved to be the winning goal and he sat watching the rest of the match with an agonised expression.
Asked about Pogba’s performance after the match, Mourinho replied “I do not analyse individual players,” but he had already pointed the finger at Pogba without mentioning his name.
“I remember clearly without television, just with my memory from the touchline, I remember clearly a Newcastle player jumping and two of my players looking at him and staying on the floor.”
The two players Mourinho was talking about were Pogba and Nemanja Matic, who was also substituted a few minutes later.
The Spurs game was the first in which Pogba had been substituted with United in a losing position and it was notable that the player had been subjected to an angry touchline rebuke from his coach shortly before his substitution. For the same thing to happen again 11 days later suggests that whatever Mourinho’s message is, Pogba is not getting it.
Pogba can now look forward to a week in which his qualities or lack of them will be the talk of English football. This is life for a player at the sharp end of Mourinho’s “confrontational leadership”.
The tone was set even before Sunday’s game with Graeme Souness writing in the Sunday Times that Pogba “plays like a schoolboy running after the ball in the playground”.
In the same article Souness made the point that Pogba “simply cannot be one of two in central midfield. You cannot rely on him.”
This is true – Pogba is a gifted attacker whose instinct is to follow his creative impulses, and the cost is that he is often out of position when the ball is lost. By now this is plain to everyone who regularly watches Manchester United, except the man who picks the team.
Mourinho must be the only person in English football who still thinks that Pogba’s natural position is as a muscular shield in front of the back four, a sort of luxury Nemanja Matic with go-faster stripes. As long as Mourinho persists in this delusion Pogba will struggle to fulfil his potential.
Mourinho could learn something from his new buddy Benitez, who had a very similar problem with Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. Gerrard’s tendency to get carried away in attack and forget the gaps he was leaving behind was a constant source of frustration for his coach, who also favoured a Mourinho-style 4-2-3-1.
But what did Benitez do? He didn’t continue to play Gerrard in a deep position and subject him to a series of punishment substitutions when things went wrong. He found positions for Gerrard away from the zone of central responsibility, where his strengths could be harnessed while his weaknesses were minimised.
Gerrard won the PFA Player of the Year playing on the right in 2006 and the FWA Footballer of the Year playing behind the centre-forward in 2009.
Unfortunately for Pogba, finding solutions to accommodate gifted but flawed individuals is not Mourinho’s way. He prefers to put it up to players, both behind the scenes and in the media, and if they continue to fail to perform on his terms, he ships them out.
He did it to Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah at Chelsea. Now they are inspiring the two teams on either side of United in the table. But both de Bruyne and Salah are lucky enough to be playing for coaches who design the team around their strengths. Does anyone believe that if they had signed for United instead of City and Liverpool, they would be playing as well as they are now?
Pogba and his agent can see these players flourishing while his own career stalls. It might also appear to him that his own coach seems more interested in managing the narratives surrounding the club, than managing the team to get the best out of his players. Unlike City, Spurs and Liverpool, United have stopped being a club that improves players, and this is a dangerous trend for the future.
Subbing Pogba off leaves nobody in any doubt where Mourinho thinks the blame belongs for the two recent damaging defeats. But if Mourinho ever wants to get the best out of his record signing, he must understand that Pogba doesn’t need to be punished. He needs help.