Is Paul Pogba Now Trapped in a Loveless Marriage with Jose Mourinho?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistMarch 19, 2018

Will Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho get back on the same page at Manchester United?
Will Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho get back on the same page at Manchester United?OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

From Liverpool to Manchester, the lack of incredulity spoke volumes.

As Mohamed Salah slalomed his way to four goals against Watford in a display that made it look as though he was equipped with skis and the rest of the field high heels, comparisons with Lionel Messi drew precious little mirth. That's the company the Egyptian keeps these days.

From a snowcapped Anfield to Ice Station Zebra at Old Trafford, the mood was decidedly more sombre. Manchester United's own star turn, Paul Pogba, was left to freeze his knackers off as an unused substitute.

As United ground their way to the FA Cup semi-finals courtesy of a 2-0 win over Brighton & Hove Albion that seemingly angered Jose Mourinho more than the meek surrender to Sevilla four days earlier, Pogba's pernicious situation merited barely more than a shrug.

In terms of scaling their respective peaks, Salah is just about ready to plant his flag, while Pogba is still at camp zero packing his rucksack two years on from his return to Manchester.  

Sat in the warmth with a weekend off, Kevin De Bruyne, perhaps Salah's only credible rival to be named Footballer of the Year, will have observed the state of affairs for both men with no little interest.

Like Salah, De Bruyne will know exactly what Pogba is going through. For two of the best players in the Premier Leaguethe world eventheir time under Mourinho's stewardship, when they were bought and sold by the Portuguese with barely a handful of appearances between them, is now no more than a sour footnote.

For Pogba, it is a chapter still in the process of being written. To borrow an Ernest Hemingway line: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed."

Of course, Hemingway's mantra only applies if there remains willingness on the part of both Pogba and Mourinho to make the relationship work.

According to John Richardson for the Sunday Mirror, the player's agent, Mino Raiola, is ­"understood to be sounding out potential buyers for the 25-year-old," while The Independent's Miguel Delaney reported a swap deal with Paris Saint Germain's Marco Verratti has tentatively been discussed, even if the hope within the club is that Pogba and Mourinho can resolve any issues.

Given the amount of leaks coming out of Old Trafford, United's first signing of the summer should be a reliable plumber.

For all the criticism and ridicule he has faced in its aftermath, Mourinho's decision to use his press conference on Friday to audition for Falling Down II clearly struck a chord with a majority inside Old Trafford.

If he is waging a war against his players, as his comments after the game on Saturday suggested he might well be doing, for the momentby the thinnest of threadshe has the club's match-going supporters just about onside.

After parking the bus against Sevilla, for the Brighton game, it was more a case of throwing his players under it. His post-match barbs in victory were so acidic that journalists at the game had to don protective gloves to write them up.

If nothing else, Luke Shaw will leave Manchester United as a qualified mechanic, such is the amount of time he has spent looking up at bus parts. Pogba and Alexis Sanchez were spared only on the grounds even Mourinho would struggle to dissect with any real fury how they sat beside him on the bench.

What Pogba will have made of his manager lambasting his attacking players for hiding, rueing a lack of personality, imagination and an inability to pass and move between the lines (while he had to have ice chiselled off him at full-time), would make for illuminating reading. And almost certainly will in the next few days when unnamed sources start to bob talkative little heads above the parapet. 

At a time when, by his own admission, Mourinho was incensed by his team's inadequacies, he made three substitutions to rectify the situation. Either he was making a point to Pogba, or he genuinely thought bringing him on wouldn't have a positive effect on proceedings. Neither scenario is ideal.

To say it was a public humiliation would be hyperbolic, but this was Mourinho doing what Mourinho does.

That his two favourite foot soldiers, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, got United over the line against Brighton, with their side's only two shots on target, is a quiet fillip for Mourinho after he name-checked them in Friday's remarkable 12-minute rant. Especially given he had played a risky hand by putting Pogba and Sanchez on the naughty step.

While United were desperately dull in getting the job done, the level of ire Mourinho demonstrated at full-time, after what was still a satisfactory resultan 11th win in 15 matches no lesssuggested he was playing to the crowd. Perhaps he even fears it. 

Still, Mourinho bemoaning a lack of invention and risk while leaving Pogba on the bench is like employing Pablo Picasso to paint your ceilings while grumbling about a lack of artwork to fill the walls. It's safe to say the France international's nose is more out of joint than one of Picasso's subjects. 

At the crux of the matter is that Pogba is very much a modern midfielder, while Mourinho has little inclination to indulge anyone who deviates from the model that has brought him so much success over his career. A 4-2-3-1 formation is his safe space.

The Frenchman wants to play as a free No. 8, craving a liberty to roam in the final third. Instructing him to sit at the base of a midfield is like asking Oliver Reed to hold your drink while you nip to the toilet. Good luck with that one, yet Mourinho still fumes when he returns to find Pogba looking befuddled while vacantly staring into the bottom of an empty pint glass.

When Pogba has been used in a midfield two, he resembles a melancholic battery chicken. Poor Matic alongside him invariably sheds his feathers through stress.

That the previously unheralded academy graduate Scott McTominay is now trusted in a way Pogba is not, says everything about how Mourinho works. The 21-year-old was praised on Saturday for attempting to do the basics, despite the fact he was playing crap.

Those who do as he says are rewarded, those who don't sit closer to him on matchdays than they would ever like. Mourinho sees things so black and white he could probably watch a game of snooker on a non-colour television without it bothering him. 

What Pogba really desires, needs even, is a manager who would free him from the coop, to allow him to play organically as David Silva and De Bruyne do at Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola is just as hard on his charges as Mourinho, even more prescriptive with his attacking players, but in his groundbreaking use of twin No. 8s he demands they work tirelessly in the areas of the pitch where they can be most constructive, not destructive.

If ever De Bruyne or Silva take the ball off the toes of their centre-halves they get a bollocking. The pair of them have been head and shoulders above any other midfielders in the Premier League this season.

Where Guardiola would play Pogba, and on the flip side, what Mourinho would do with De Bruyne, are two of the season's more intriguing hypotheticals.

There have been more column inches dedicated to Pogba's best position than there have about Brexit over the past 12 months, so without wishing to add to an already gargantuan mound, it's worth recapping the general viewpoints.

At Juventus, Pogba found a hard but sympathetic taskmaster in Antonio Conte. He had the Frenchman enjoying the best football of his career by playing him to the left of a midfield three. That the rhythm section of the Old Lady's midfield, Andrea Pirlo, could probably have made Marilyn Manson look like Marilyn Monroe, should not detract from the fact Pogba's rangy athleticism was one of the most edifying sights in world football throughout his spell in Serie A.

Since his return to Old Trafford, more often than not, his most impressive spells have similarly been when employed in a midfield three, which gives him freedom to drift in between the lines of his favoured left channel. It is the same part of the pitch Sanchez loves to occupy, a fact not lost on Pogba, according to L'Equipe (h/t the Daily Telegraph). Perhaps even more so at the weekend when they occupied the same space againon the bench.

It may be a slightly antiquated view, but it doesn't seem too much to ask to expect a tune out of the world's most expensive midfielder when used in a central pairing. Knowing when to sit and when to push on hardly requires a footballing brain equal to Rinus Michels.

All this talk of "left of a three" seems a little niche, like a Michelin star chef arguing the only ingredient they can cook with is carrot. To think back in 1995, £1.5 million was enough to buy you Ned Zelic, a player then-Queens Park Rangers manager Ray Wilkins famously described as being as "versatile as an egg."

A Daily Mail report at the end of last year that said Pogba's behaviour had started to exasperate other senior players, to the extent the club had to send staff to get him out of bed when he failed to show up at Carrington for a warm-down session, seems at odds with the picture Pirlo paints of his former team-mate.

"He is, of course, a great player, but sometimes with natural ability, some players think that is enough," Pirlo said, via the Manchester Evening News. "That's not the case with him. You are getting a player with a great attitude. He wants to be the best in the world, he wants to learn off the coaches and the senior players. He is hungry to be the best."

It may seem an aeon ago, but in Pogba's defence, from October 23, 2016, to January 31, 2017, when they lost 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur to end the run, United did not lose a Premier League match in which he started. That's over 16 months. All of a sudden the widely held notion he doesn't influence games enough seems a little hollow.

Whether holding off two players or wriggling out of a spot so tight it owes itself a tenner, it shouldn't be forgotten Pogba is a wonderful footballer. Built like a basketball player, his feet are faster than seems natural for a man of his imposing stature. When he shifts the ball quickly it's a thing of real beauty. On a technical level, his passing is similarly impeccable when he's in the mood.

Considering how careless he has looked of late, there are few better at weighting a pass than Pogba: long or short. 

In United's first five Premier League matches of this season, when Pogba was utilised in his favourite position, he scored three goals and registered as many assists. The problem is he hasn't troubled the scoresheet since, and his last assists came against Stoke City on January 15. When does a two-month lull start to become something more serious?

That protestation over Pogba's benching was half-hearted even in the rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth world of social media said a great deal. His inability to get into a Manchester United side that in its previous three home matches had had just six shots on target should be a genuine concern for the player.

The defeat against Tottenham, when Pogba was substituted on 63 minutes after being entirely dominated by Mousa Dembele at Wembley Stadium, was where the wheels started to come off.

What at the time many thought was just a blip has become a great big bloody problem. His roll call since the Spurs game reads: Benched, substituted, ill, benched, 90 minutes, 90 minutes, injured, benched, benched.

Pogba is divisive like few other footballers. There is an argument to say varying perceptions of him are split on generational lines.

A couple weeks ago in The Times, the always-readable James Gheerbrant proposed a hypothesis that decreed trophies don't really matter anymore. Ostensibly, the piece concerned itself with managers and how things are changing with regards what is perceived as success.

In it, Gheerbrant cited artist Fatima Al Qadiri's view, "There's no such thing as the most recent update. It immediately becomes obsolete." As a consequence, he concluded: "Trophies, the instant they are won, pass into history, a sepia-tinted realm of scant interest to the millennial. It is how our teams make us feel, how we experience them in the here and now that is important; not the number of cups we can point to."

For those of us of an age where we have been curmudgeons longer than we have not been curmudgeons, it is the type of rhetoric that makes us loathe Snapchat before we have worked out what Snapchat actually is. Yet at the same time, even a belligerent fool can recognise it also perfectly encapsulates the appeal of Pogba.

In terms of being a millennial man, Pogba is without rival. As a microcosm, in a game situation, a trophy effectively equates to end product. So what if he hasn't created a single chance in his last five Premier League matches, when the pirouette he did in the middle of the pitch left two opponents looking like Laurel and Hardy and went viral.

Whether off the field or on it, Pogba lives in the moment. He is a player of improvisational brilliance. Even on a slow day, his showreel from a given game would be enough to get him in front of any producer in Hollywood. Which admittedly doesn't have the appeal it once did but still.

Pogba understands the business of the modern game like no other playing today. With 21.4 million Instagram followers, he has 200,000 more than Manchester United's official account. In terms of shifting product, of fronting slick marketing campaigns, he couldn't be more billboard-perfect had Don Draper dreamed him up from the office of an advertising agency on Madison Avenue.

His critics argue if he knew his position as well as he does his marketability, Pogba would be the best midfielder in the world.

Roy Keane may on occasion be reductive to the point he becomes a parody of himself, but beneath the snarling and sinister Pinter-esque pregnant pauses, there's a good deal of sense to a lot of what he says. The same could be said of Mourinho in some respects, though the former United midfielder would shudder at the thought.

After Sevilla, Keane on ITV duties (h/t the Mirror) said Pogba had played like a "schoolboy" upon being brought on as a substitute with the game goalless, demonstrating a rank inability to sniff out the type of danger that led to the away side's opening goal.

In February, Keane told ITV (h/t the Mirror): "Off the field, he has a big personality with the social media, his haircuts, the cars he drives, he needs to bring that on the pitch." United's marketing department will have loved that. Before the Irishman had finished his sentence, a club suit will almost certainly have got in touch with the FA to enquire whether Pogba entering the field in a Chevrolet contravenes any rules.

In the French media this week, Emmanuel Petit urged his compatriot to cease "sulking," warning him on RMC Sport (h/t Mikael McKenzie of the Express) to "stop making it a Mourinho-Pogba duel." The United boss would shoot you in the back before you'd taken three steps, let alone 12. 

It's easy to be dismissive of views proffered by players turned talking heads, especially given the very nature of punditry dictates those with trenchant views get repeat bookings. Yet at the same time, for two years now, a whole suite of fine central midfielders in their own playing days have echoed a view Pogba doesn't understand his position. Graeme Souness could be reviewing his tea and he'd sneak in a withered line about Pogba, while the even-handed Frank Lampard referred to the world's most expensive midfielder on Sky Sports as a "£90 million problem."

For a kid who is eminently likeable, few dispute Mourinho enjoys his infectious personality, he's not short of people willing to leave the boot in.

During the first half of the Crystal Palace game when United were inexplicably bad, Gary Neville on co-commentary duty for Sky Sports launched into a diatribe so impassioned it would have made for the shortest game of Cluedo ever. Neville did it in the dressing room with a mobile phone.

"His great weakness is that he plays like he's playing in the park with his mates," the United icon fumed on Sky Sports. "It's like everything he does is like a YouTube or Instagram video. It's like it's not serious, it's like a joke to him in terms of the way he goes about things."

One doesn't have to be au fait with the works of Sigmund Freud to understand Pogba's body language stank.

Every misplaced pass or ropey touch, of which there were enough to fill a reporter's notebook, was met with him throwing his arms in the direction of a team-mate. He looked like an overindulged director lambasting a mere actor for not understanding his vision. Against Sevilla, he may as well have been wearing jeans. It's a good job Adidas shorts don't house pockets.

It's certainly far from ideal in a World Cup year. France head coach Didier Deschamps has reassured him he remains an integral part of his plans for Russia. However, two years on from the European Championship, it seems likely Pogba will head into an international tournament again as much a conundrum to his manager as he is a solution.

On the eve of France's second group match at Euro 2016, against Albania, L'Equipe's front page went with a photograph of Deschamps stealing a furtive look in the direction of his midfielder. As reported by the Guardian's Amy Lawrence, the headline read: "Le Casse-Tete De Deschamps." It roughly translates as "Deschamp's Headache."

One suspects it may take more than a couple of paracetamol to get "Le Casse-Tete De Mourinho" off the back pages in England.

At the minute, the pair of them appear as if trapped in a loveless marriage while keeping up appearances. If it ends in the divorce courts, the only winner will be Raiola.

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