Sunday 22 July 2018

Mourinho must solve the Pogba conundrum

United to prevail against Newcastle side drifting into irrelevance but deficiency in French midfielder's game remains big problem

Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho discuss the role of the midfielder during Manchester United’s defeat to Tottenham. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho discuss the role of the midfielder during Manchester United’s defeat to Tottenham. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Kerr

The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.

"It's always raining here," says Dave the taxi-driver as he edges us towards Old Trafford between the Saturday shoppers.

We arrive very early for United's game against Huddersfield but already people are gathering beneath the East Stand where time, it seems, has always stood still. 3.04pm.

Inside, on every seat there is a complimentary match programme, which includes special features on the Busby Babes; within, a small book, almost like a miniature bible, re-telling their tragic tale.

There is a full-size picture, too of the fateful line-up, their red shirts exploding in vivid colour to lighten the slate-grey dullness when held up during a minute's silence.

Perhaps understandably, the atmosphere is muted during a game the home side win with relative comfort but afterwards Jose Mourinho struck a discordant note by criticising the "quiet" supporters.

It's not the first time he has done so this season and, with the Glazers deciding again not to attend the official Munich commemoration on Wednesday, one can again see perhaps a disconnect between the club and their supporters.

Watching their neighbours win plaudits for style - and the inevitable trophies that will ensue - compounds the sense of frustration even if there are signs that Mourinho is, slowly but surely, positioning his club for a more realistic challenge in the future.

It is very obvious that he is the one charged with the sole responsibility with recruitment, rather than the committee approach that frustrates managers elsewhere.

Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba were all individually targeted by the manager.

And, having extended his contract, despite earlier grumpiness which hinted that he may be eyeing a move to Paris one has to assume that the owners are also satisfied with the progression.

He still picks regular fights, notably with the once loyal Red Paul Scholes; a stark contrast to a manager who - twice - tried to align himself as a true Chelsea blue when, in reality, he is at heart a managerial mercenary.

He's the sort of fella who, if he wins the egg and spoon race at the kids' school sports day, you'd imagine he'd stick his fingers up as he does on his frequent returns to Stamford Bridge to announce to one and all his latest personal triumph.

They are still fighting on two Cup fronts and should progress beyond the hurdles of Huddersfield and Sevilla.

In the Premier League, they currently have 56 points from 26 games and with 12 games to go, a predicted 81 point target would have been good enough to win the league two years ago. After successive seasons with 66 and 69 points, the graph is upwards.

The problem he is no longer the Special One. The Special One has relocated up the road and the special team reside there too.

For United, it is about bridging the gap with a style and an effective unit to really take on City. It can't be ruled out as there is nobody more qualified to do it than Mourinho.

They have curtailed their excessive draws - last season they had ten in Old Trafford alone last season, where they only won eight times. In this campaign, five draws - home and away - is not unreasonable.

They knocked over a few teams like skittles early on in the season; Newcastle were the fourth side they scored four or more against in November but they managed the feat only once since.

Their flaws are exposed against rivals. They lost three big games against Chelsea, Man City and Spurs and they have only won two of their six matches against top six rivals so far.

Mourinho still seems to be in experimental mode.

Only David De Gea, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku are nailed on as ever-presents. Everyone else seems interchangeable, whether through form or injury.

Against Spurs, Matic looked ragged for the first time, lacking dominance, pace and mobility. So you perhaps understood why Chelsea took the money. Mourinho tried to start his own fab four against Spurs and it was startling to see how disorganised they were.

His team always have a structure, they'll pounce on a mistake, score and retreat into their shell. Against Spurs, it was as if he wanted to cast the shackles off but was unable to.

Pogba is the supposed totem of the squad but he has a huge deficiency in his game. He doesn't recognise the importance of getting behind the ball quickly when possession is lost.

Even in a three-man midfield, that ability is vital. Scholes, Roy Keane and Michael Carrick were far better players in this regard without compromising their attacking qualities.

Pogba is neither reliable nor a big match-winner on his own. His physical stature and supposed status in the game have not been adequately matched in a red shirt yet.

Aside from his obvious attacking skills, he needs to react quicker in defensive situations if United are going to become a title-winning side. Given his age and background in Italian football, it is astonishing that this weakness persists.

Just as surprising is that Mourinho is supervising such a situation.

In Pogba's best days at Juventus, he operated within an experienced unit amongst the majestic Andrea Pirlo, the workmanlike Claudio Marchisio and latterly Sami Khedira, who provided the balance that allowed Pogba freer rein to advance on the left where his deficiencies were less exposed.

He also had the comfort of the famed defensive trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in front of Gianlugi Buffon, not to mention the outstanding front two Alvaro Morata and Carlos Tevez.

The short-term solution for Jose is to include Ander Herrera joining Nemanja Matic in a similar three-man combination in midfield.

But that will mean that there will be only room for one more place in attack, presuming Alexis Sanchez and Lukaku start every match.

Hence, only one of Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford - all international players - would start.

Competition will be intense but also frustrating for the younger players who may have felt their places were relatively secure until the arrival of Sanchez.

For tomorrow's game, I expect Pogba to return to the starting 11 from the bold step against opponents who should not trouble them and they will be able to field an extra forward in an attacking 4-2-3-1 system.

It's strange to think that Jose and Rafa Benitez once followed the other around Europe's big leagues and its biggest clubs - both have managed at Chelsea and Real Madrid.

Newcastle United have had potential but no progress for a long time. Too long. Despite their avid fan base and storied history, they are now a nondescript team with nondescript players.

Pogba's fee is twice that of the Newcastle side that may start today's match; their record signing was Michael Owen in 2007.

You would think they would be a model for some of the transformative investment that has arrived in English football.

It appears that the much-reviled Mike Ashley might have sold before Christmas but wanted a price that the prospective buyers weren't willing to pay given that the club remain haunted by the spectre of yet another relegation.

And yet Ashley is also unwilling to spend the money required to remove that relegation threat so the club remains in a vicious cycle of utter stagnation.

If it seemed surprising that Benitez would pitch up at Newcastle, England is still where all the top managers want to be. It is more surprising that he stayed there after relegation.

Having achieved promotion with a team of Championship players, they remain a team of Championship players and the threat of relegation is obvious. Benitez appears remarkably becalmed.

He has spoken about his responsibility and, in response to a lack of transfer funds, the need not to create a war. A proud club seems resigned to their fate and the impasse may force him to move on, regardless of what division they play their football in next season.

Some might not have much sympathy; their treatment of Chris Hughton, for one, lacked class and their regular turnover of managers seems hardly surprising.

In recent times, no visiting team has enjoyed more success at St James' Park than Man Utd - curiously, however, Mourinho has never won there in his previous six visits with Chelsea.

Hopefully that might prompt Benitez to unveil a far more enterprising approach than the limp effort they produced when the other Manchester visited here in December.

Along with basement side West Brom, they share the worst home record in the division and their eight-game winless streak at home threatens to extend into a barren spell not witnessed since 1999.

The arrival of the Brazilian Kenedy from Chelsea has given them some much-needed oomph and energy on the left but with their lack of goals, or a target man, Islam Slimani's arrival on loan from Leicester might turn around Newcastle's home form.

His ability in the air and physicality, compared to Joselu Mato and Dwight Gayle, will allow the team to stay compact against their visitors but also have an out-ball and someone who can score from crosses.

His goalscoring record, when given a run of matches, is decent. He nabbed seven of them from only 13 starts last season.

That type of form, if re-produced, can be the difference in a relegation battle.

Their only win in eight attempts was Stoke away on New Year's Day and with away days against Liverpool and Spurs coming up shortly, every point snatched at home is vital for Newcastle.

The frustrated St James' Park faithful deserve better but, with the atmosphere around St James' more sombre than at any time during Ashley's reign, even the most devoted are slowly losing their faith.

Irish Independent

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