Comment: Jose Mourinho is the wrong manager for Paul Pogba
This is a big week for Manchester United. It could be an even bigger one for Paul Pogba. If – and it is an if given his illness and loss of form - the midfielder plays and plays well against Sevilla in the Champions League on Wednesday night and at home to Chelsea in the Premier League next Sunday then it can quickly extinguish the flames around him.
If United win both those games then the landscape of their season, following on from an FA Cup victory away to Huddersfield Town (without Pogba) that earned them a favourable quarter-final draw at home to Brighton, appears far brighter. Lose and it will be gloomier and Pogba will be at the centre of that.
As ever with Jose Mourinho there appears to be creative tension. This is a manager who never shies away from turning a drama into a crisis and he has fanned the debate around Pogba with his comments but also his actions. What is strange is that it has erupted now – in February – deep into a campaign.
As ever with Mourinho it is complicated. There is no clear right or wrong. In fact the problem here is that both the player and the manager have a point. Pogba is right in that the best use of him is to the left of a midfield three, as he played with such success at Juventus that he was thought worthy of a world record £89million fee to take him back to United. So why not play him there?
But Mourinho is also right in that he has to use Pogba as he sees fit within what is best for his unbalanced team and that the player has simply not played well enough to warrant a free role.
And not just of late when he has been justifiably substituted and dropped. After all, it is not as if Mourinho is playing him at right-back.
But, then again, the manager's adherence to a rigid 4-2-3-1 formation does not help Pogba when he is asked to play in a deeper role given he struggles with the positional sense it requires as various pundits have pointed out. It does not play to his strengths.
So the bigger problem for Pogba – and, in fairness, it must be remembered he has not said anything publicly - is that if he really does want that team to be built around him then Mourinho is probably the wrong manager for him.
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The problem for United – and this is not Mourinho's fault – is that they surely gave Pogba the impression that it would be his team when they signed him and constructed such an overblown social media campaign. That came complete with a promo video for Adidas, for whom Pogba is a poster boy, with the grime star Stormzy, in which the player danced and practiced his goal celebration. "PogBOOM" Adidas tweeted. Indeed.
Back to the football and something, eventually, has to give. Either Pogba will learn and adapt or Mourinho will re-think and grant him his wish with a shift of formation to the 4-3-3 he craves. Or Pogba goes.
No-one is discussing the latter option. Neither United nor Mourinho want Pogba to go and the 24-year-old is not looking for a way out of the club. But while it may be overblown to suggest Pogba's future at United is in doubt, or that he regrets re-joining, or that his relationship with Mourinho has deteriorated, there are undoubtedly concerns; concerns over his form, concerns over where he plays and where this is all heading.
The hints are everywhere. It is obvious that with more yellow cards (four) than goals (three) this season, albeit along with a long injury lay-off, that Pogba has simply not contributed enough. Or that he can be bracketed as world-class despite his extraordinary profile. At present he is more marketer than midfielder.
There is that enduring sense that United are better with him as Pogba showed with his comeback performance last autumn against Newcastle United. He is prodigiously talented. But that was only Newcastle while his best game was away to Everton on New Year's Day when he did get to play where he wants and when he ran the show. But, again, that was only against Everton. For a big-game player – or a player with a big-game profile – there have not been enough big games. Pogba needs to stop being a show-pony and start showing up.
Is it also purely coincidental that this has blown up soon after Alexis Sanchez's move to United making him, arguably, United's biggest player?
Pogba is a popular figure in the United dressing room and although he is portrayed as egotistical it is more an issue of eccentricity and, maybe, a little immaturity which Mourinho has certainly lived with as he previously talked up the 24-year-old as a future captain of his team and defended his form.
But now the cracks are there. It may be simply that Mourinho's patience has been stretched by the stories surfacing in France last week that Pogba is frustrated and feels mis-used but when he spoke of academy product Scott McTominay, who took Pogba's place against Huddersfield, it appeared pointed.
"Honestly I think Scott deserves more than what he's getting," Mourinho said. "I think maybe it's because he is this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid." Whoever could Mourinho be referring to? He can easily say it is not Pogba but he knows the connection will be made.
Maybe Mourinho has simply moved from a period of indulgence to one of tough love, as he often does. No-one can blame such a successful and experienced manager for that. Hopefully they will, as sources close to the player have suggested, work through this. But it does beg the biggest question of all: quite why did Mourinho buy Pogba in the first place?