The damning signs are there to see at Man United – the battle for Paul Pogba's heart and mind has begun
It was after the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur that those at Manchester United noticed a different mood to Paul Pogba. While many initially thought it was just a strop at being substituted by Jose Mourinho that would pass, it soon became something more. It didn't pass. The fear now is that it is developing into something more than that, and potentially an outright clash between the two most powerful football figures at the club at a fragile time.
It is highly conspicuous that information was leaked from both camps on Wednesday night, and that’s a development that will only make things more complicated. Media known to be close to the Jorge Mendes camp suggested that Pogba had been put out by the signing of Alexis Sanchez, wanted a different position and that "ego lies at the core of the complaint". L'Equipe meanwhile reported that the star has "regrets" about returning to Old Trafford. Both leaks suggest that the battle for hearts and minds has now begun.
Information received by The Independent after that loss at Spurs indicated that Pogba was genuinely unhappy and – in the heat of the moment at least – wouldn't have objected to a transfer away. He was that put out. He still remains unhappy at his role in the team. That's obvious.
United sources do feel that the Sanchez angle has been overplayed, and point out that the 24-year-old was in that position before the Chilean arrived. They say that, even though some teammates have rolled their eyes at his inflated influence and position within the actual club, he is a team player when it comes right down to it. They point to the sacrifices he makes for Antoine Griezmann with France.
Mourinho meanwhile thinks that – regardless of anything – Pogba tries too many glory moments and doesn't keep it simple. This really just reflects how the root of this entire clash is one so mundane in nature. It is a difference in how they see the game.
Mourinho has very explicitly said that he views the 24-year-old as a "midfielder" with "everything", but the reality is that he is asking the player to do things that he isn't good at, or which aren't the best use of his abilities. In the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United, Pogba was played deeper and tried to pick the ball up from defence further back, but he never excels in that position and so rarely starts attacks from there in the way that might be expected.
The bottom line is really that Pogba is not a traditional midfielder, but is instead a very modern forward player, a free-roaming No 8. This is how he sees himself, this is how those managers that have got the best out of him have seen him and this is why he feels he is being misused.
There are also eminently fair questions about Pogba's positional sense and tactical discipline. It does many times feel like there are is much of the game he just needs to learn.
Many might say that if you spend a world-record fee on a player, he should have the ability to do what is asked, but flip that. If you spend a world-record fee on a player, why would you suppress what he is good at?
The comparison with Kevin De Bruyne has been made copious times this season, and would you really play the Belgian as one of a two in central midfield? Sure, he could probably do it, but would that really be the best use of that talent?
It actually says a lot about this whole theme, this whole season, and the whole trajectories of the two players that "one of a two in midfield" isn't really a role that exists in a Pep Guardiola team in that way. And this might now be a tired trope, but that’s because there’s a truth to it: it's difficult not to think that Pogba would excel within the mobility allowed in a Guardiola midfield.
On that note, where would Mourinho play De Bruyne? It’s similarly difficult not to think it would be wide in a more rigid 4-2-3-1, with a lot of defensive duties.
He just wouldn't be the roaming force he is now, and that maybe Pogba should be now. A Mourinho team doesn't really allow that. He doesn't see midfielders in that way.
This – and the comparison with the leaders, Manchester City – is pertinent because that kind of fluidity is now the standard at the highest level of the game, that is the benchmark, that is what is done at the very top. It points to how this is a greater problem that may not be quickly remedied.
It would either take Mourinho to change how he views football, or take Pogba to change how he views what he is as a football player.
It is also only complicated by the fact that United as a club have based so much of their commercial plans around a star like the French international, but have just given a new contract extension to a manager who doesn’t base his football plans on this player's improvisational star qualities.
This could genuinely develop into a real problem. It could call for big decisions to be made in the future.
There's also the history of how these kind of flashpoints with Mourinho and players have generally developed in the past. Some around Chelsea and United have already quipped "it starts then".
It can still be finished quickly. All isn’t necessarily lost. The Luke Shaw situation shows that Mourinho has a capacity to go back on decisions and give second chances in a way many didn’t expect.
It shouldn't be forgotten that he has used Pogba in a 4-3-3 this season, and he has excelled. He may well go back to that in the way he went back on Shaw.
It's just that, right now, the situation ironically requires the kind of creative solution that Pogba is usually best at but his current role doesn't quite allow.
Independent News Service