Tuesday 11 December 2018

Comment: Brilliant but balanced, this was the Paul Pogba Jose Mourinho and Manchester United want

Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba

Miguel Delaney

You might call it a vintage Paul Pogba display, without quite calling it a vintage midfield play. There was a bit of everything to it, rather than the French star dominating everything. Pogba was often quiet, but occasionally commanding. He did something a little bit silly with a dive, but then also something very clever with a divine pass. Most of all, though, his involvement in both Manchester United goals against Bournemouth saw a mix of the steady and the sublime.

All of these contributions indicate the constant bind that Pogba has found himself in at United, but the compromise the player showed here is perhaps why Jose Mourinho himself described it as a “top performance”. That it immediately followed Sunday’s early substitution against West Brom was also impressive. It showed character, and a bit more. Perhaps this was the balance that the manager wants him to strike, and that has been so difficult for both the Portuguese and the player to find.

The fundamental issue with Pogba at United has been a difference of interpretation, and intention. While sources who know Mourinho say that part of the world-record 2016 purchase was because the manager was conscious of the need to add a different dimension to his usual midfield make-up, it has often been as if he can’t quite stop himself reverting. He can't stop himself asking such a creator to do a more constrained job.

It has meant Pogba has regularly got lost between trying to play his natural expressive game, and trying to rein it in as his manager has reined it. It has just felt like there has been persistent push and pull with the 25-year-old.

This match did feel like he found a promising - if not yet a perfect - middle ground, in the centre of the pitch. He did often push the play, and occasionally pull the strings, but was generally just steady.

There were more than a few moments when you would have expected Pogba to try and indulgent pass or trick, but he instead played an intelligent straight ball. A moment illustrative of the latter was the first goal. Pogba had the ball in an opportune position at the corner of the box, and it surely appealed to him to try something speculative. He instead took the straight option by just playing it to Jesse Lingard, with this the prelude to a flowing Manchester United goal.

This was also exactly what Mourinho would have wanted.

Pogba still got to do what he wanted late on, offering that slick slide-rule through ball for Romelu Lukaku. This was surely the kind of goal all at the club - and some outside it like agent Mino Raiola - would have idealised when both young players were brought together.

Soon after that, his work complete and the win confirmed, Pogba was taken off. There were a few boos from the home crowd for what looked the heaviest of falls after the lightest of touches in the second half, but that was no more than a bit of pantomime.

Mourinho had appreciated the more serious level of the display. As to whether all is now well, that will take a while.

For the conspiratorial, there was a conspicuous moment when Pogba reached the by-line on being subbed off. The midfielder made to open the door to go straight down the tunnel, only for a voice to call him back from the bench, where he went to sit.

Some might say that Pogba could have still been irritated and the bench's response might have all been part of the performance, to try and show there is no issue between manager and player, as has been the case a few times this seasons. Others might fairly say Pogba just momentarily forgot, and it is entirely innocent.

The truth probably isn’t in the middle there, but Pogba himself did find a balance in the middle tonight.

The caveat was that this was a relatively meaningless league game against a bottom-half club - even if it had individual meaning for Pogba after Sunday - and that he was playing in his preferred three. He will have to continue this in more complicated surroundings.

Rather than looking like he could be sold in the summer, though, this instead appeared like the player selling his adaptability to his manager again.

It was promising and positive, much like the performance.

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