Friday 18 August 2017

At £89m, Pogba should be the new Roy Keane – not a lost boy

Midfielder's lack of impact making a mockery of manager's praise

Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba
James Lawton

James Lawton

Jose Mourinho may do sneering better than any of his football contemporaries. He may also have a genius for diversionary tactics.

But this week he was the king of the put-down who wasn't wearing any clothes.

His suggestion that criticism of some of the recent performances of £89m Paul Pogba was born of the envy of the financially challenged was absurd enough to toss into the nearest rubbish bin. Unfortunately, it went deeper than that.

Mourinho claimed that Pogba was the best player on the field at Stamford Bridge last Monday as Chelsea knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup.

Arguably, the Frenchman was the worst, the least significantly involved, the most peripheral when the action was at its most intense.

His Chelsea counterpart N'Golo Kante - at barely a third of the price - was three times the player.

So why would Mourinho make such a parody of football analysis?

The reason, you have got to believe, is basic enough. It is that one of the game's most celebrated coaches is groping down a blind alley as he attempts to glean some value from its most expensive player.

Apologists

Some apologists are saying that Pogba is weary from his status as a near ever-present in the team after the pressure of last summer's European Championship. After limping off following an ineffective first half last night against Rostov, he should at least now have time to rest.

What those backing him cannot say is that thus far he has shown even a hint that one day he will be the pivotal player in a new United. And that surely was the expectation rather than the hope when the huge investment was made.

It is not as though Pogba is taking his first strides in the football big-time. He won four Serie A medals, three of them under the fierce direction of Antonio Conte. He is a key figure in the French national team.

This week he celebrated his 24th birthday, which made him two years older than Roy Keane was when he arrived at Old Trafford from Nottingham Forest under the burden of becoming the most expensive signing in English football history at £3.75m.

Burden? Keane wore it as lightly as a summer training vest. He didn't come just to play but to take over the place.

By the sharpest contrast, Pogba seems more intent on firing off tweets and refining his haircut.

When Wayne Rooney appeared at United he didn't have anything like Pogba's winning background but he did have a passion and a plainly innate talent for playing at the highest level of the game.

He was the teenage star of the England team in the European Championships in Portugal in 2004 before being cut down by injury. He introduced himself to Old Trafford with a stunning hat-trick.

Now United wait, with increasing anxiety, for a little evidence that Pogba has the capacity to hit such heights.

The growing worry behind Mourinho's bizarre smokescreen is that maybe the qualities of the Pogba of Juventus were not so much over-estimated as misinterpreted.

At Juve, Pogba didn't orchestrate the show. That was the brief of silky veteran Andrea Pirlo.

Conte had Pogba as a powerful presence along the right side of midfield. There, with his pace and his strength, he won most of his battles and imposed bite and drive in an important part of the field.

Juventus never asked him to run the game and perhaps there was a good reason for that. There were times at Stamford Bridge this week when he had the demeanour - and the impact - of a lost boy.

Whole passages of play passed him by. He didn't win the ball, he didn't get on it and try to create something when he occasionally came upon it, and all the time there was an inevitable comparison with the extraordinary contribution of the remorselessly effective Kante, who delivered the final sword-stroke when he scored a superbly instinctive winner.

Kante's reward was an embrace from a grateful Conte. Pogba's was Mourinho's attack on the envy of his critics.

It was not something to hoard in the memory, unless you were a collector of prize managerial double-talk, but perhaps one phrase will be hard to forget.

"I'm really worried about previous generations," said the Special One. "Envy is everywhere."

Envy? Or a dogged old belief in the importance of value for money?

Mourinho needed to be asked when he last heard someone complain about the wage slips of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Or why it was that his own club director, and one of the greatest players in football history, Bobby Charlton, stood in the Juventus directors box applauding throughout Keane's epic leadership in the 1999 Champions League semi-final - and without a single reference to the scale of his wages.

Mourinho is no doubt right when he says that it is not Pogba's fault that, to speak conservatively, he gets 10 times more than players of the past.

But then with that good luck there surely comes a certain responsibility.

Gifts

It is to do what Charlton and Keane did yesterday, and Messi and Ronaldo do today. It is to show evidence that you are aware of your gifts and your good luck and that so long as they are in your possession you will give all you have.

Before last night's Europa League tie with Rostov there was no charge that Pogba was ducking a great challenge of his career - only that he was delivering so much less than had been reasonably expected.

And that, perhaps, there had been times when he might have shown a little more concern. So, too, might Mourinho.

If the world's problem is envy, there can't be much doubt about his. It is to earn his not ungenerous salary and get done an extremely important part of his job.

It could, after all, begin and end with Pogba.

Irish Independent

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