FROM Europe’s 2013 Golden Boy award winner, to the most expensive player on the planet, to … Manchester United bench warmer.
What on earth is going on with Paul Pogba?
He was subbed off against Tottenham, ‘sick’ against Huddersfield, then, the club’s most expensive player of all time was available for selection, and not picked, for the club’s biggest game of the season so far.
As Mourinho sucks the life out of a Manchester United side laden with attacking talent, Pogba has joined other young stars Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford being forced to re-evaluate their game by their Portuguese mentor.
Why is he picking a fight with his star, a player of irresistible talent capable of almost anything on the park?
It’s a very, very expensive lesson Mourinho is dishing out in Pogba’s case as he pegs the mega star down a rung or two: is it simply about defensive discipline and tactical flaws or is he also putting a huge ego in its place in a monumental message to his dressing room that this is his Manchester United?
As Mourinho’s United still search for an identity, it seems there’s only confusion as to how to get the best out of a player that should define them.
Paul Scholes said on BT Sport: “Mourinho has lost some trust in him. It’s a big European away game and he doesn’t play the position particularly well defensively.
“He’s got it all going forward and more ability than the three playing tonight, but with his positional sense Mourinho wants that solidity.
“This is a lad with real talent and he is someone who needs to be told his job – at the minute he doesn’t understand it.
“He’s so quick, strong and powerful, and he’s a real asset to the team when on form. For two or three years he was one of the best in the world because he knew his job.
“But with United you don’t know how they will play. Eighteen months into his career and we are still asking: ‘Where is his best position?’”
Graeme Souness said earlier this month that he is “a country mile from being a great player” and he has an “inability to grasp the responsibility that comes with being a central midfielder”.
Former Manchester United midfielder Gordon Strachan said on Sky Sports’ Debate program that there’s no conspiracy – Pogba is simply out of form: “I don’t think that, as a manager, you do that to prove a lesson. You tell them to their face: ‘I’m the boss’.
“You don’t put your side at risk and put a game at risk, just to say ‘I’m the boss’. You tell them to get on with the game and win the game.
“I don’t think anybody would use a player and a game to prove a point. You know who’s the boss, that’s for sure.”
He added: “Paul must recognise that he’s not playing as well as he could.
“If you recognise that then you’ve got to say ‘I can get dropped’. If you’re playing brilliantly you can’t get dropped.
“Common sense says if you’re not playing well – and we’d all agree he’s not come to the standards expected because he’s a great player and is still a fantastic player – the manager has every right to leave him out of the team.”
Mourinho’s former Chelsea midfield lynchpin Frank Lampard assessed: “He’s a big-enough man to take being dropped. It’s about defensive ability on a night like this and trust – and I think that’s what’s been lost.
“Mourinho is trying to shock him by taking him off in big games. He has to react to that and improve the defensive side to his game.
“You can’t excuse not having the desire to defend. It’s awareness and effort that he doesn’t show. You have to alter your game, we’ve all done it.
“All the top teams like City, Chelsea, Barca – when they don’t have the ball they have urgency. You can’t have a passenger. When he’s not at full pelt he’s letting the team down.”
Much has been made over the last 18 months of Pogba being a square peg in a round hole when Mourinho plays with two defensive midfielders, but in Sevilla, with a midfield ‘three’, 21-year-old Scott McTominay was chosen in his place.
So sick of questions about Pogba, Mourinho hugged the journalist who asked him about the blonde-haired young gun, a rare fresh face playing simple, disciplined football carrying out the instructions, it seems, his manager thinks Pogba will not.
It’s hugely ironic that the uncertainty reaches its peak as Manchester United prepare to face Chelsea on the weekend, helmed by Antonio Conte, the manager at Juventus when the Frenchman developed into the world’s most sought after midfield talent.
The Italian boss had Pogba deployed in a midfield ‘three’, where he would sit in a midfield, usually to the left, next to Andrea Pirlo, and often, Arturo Vidal. Other partners included Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio.
He was certainly surrounded by disciplined, top class midfielders in Turin, which allowed him to roam and drift and show off his attacking instincts.
Former Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand added that he doesn’t have that support at the moment: “A key part of the problem is momentum after an injury, and in and out of the side. At the starting of the season he was in fantastic form, showing signs of the player when he signed for that money.
“But I don’t care who you are, injuries affect you. Positioning has been a big part of the problem. I would have been screaming at him if I played with him. He would find me a nightmare as I would be pushing him all over the pitch.
“He needs that. He had that at Juventus. You’ve got to be on your toes and be someone who goes with intent to defend your team. He’s been lacking that in recent weeks. Bonucci, Chiellini and Buffon at Juventus, he had that behind him.
“Here the communication isn’t there and the demands aren’t being put on him. When you pay £89m, you play him in a position with his strengths. I don’t think the team is set up to get the best out of him.”
Mourinho’s tough love is not the first time the star has copped it. Conte dished it out, too; when he was late to training in 2012, or when, in 2014, he deliberately criticised him in a press conference for his relaxed defensive approach in a game that he scored a great goal.
Those lessons seemed to work in Turin; question now is, are we reading too much into things as Mourinho makes a similar point – and, making similar mistakes four years on, is Pogba capable of making those changes – or is there a power battle at play?
France boss Didier Deschamps says Pogba’s form is fine, and he has no issues tactically: “Paul Pogba can play every midfield position, in a two or a three, without a problem.
“I have seen him play very well in 4-3-3, I have seen him very good in a two with us. It’s not the same thing.
“When we have three he has more freedom, he loves that, going forward, but when you’re in a three you don’t get as many touches.
“He’s able to do that, he has the skills. He’s creative, but he can also win the ball back and play it simple too.
“It’s true that when we have two in front of the defence, there is less freedom. On the other hand he gets more touches, and he loves touches on the ball.”
So why then, is he on the outer?
Jamie Redknapp wrote in The Daily Mail: “Paul Pogba is a real problem. Jose Mourinho clearly has an issue with his attitude and that discord is going to divide the dressing room.
“Feuds like this don’t go away, this is a wound that won’t heal in a hurry. Pogba and Mourinho both have big egos, but one of them is going to have to relent for the good of the club.
“If I was Jose, I’d say to Pogba, ‘You’re at a fantastic club: get your head down and work for your place’. If he can’t get into United’s team, he’s not going to make Barcelona or Real Madrid’s starting eleven.
“He’s a player who thrives when he feels trusted — so Mourinho has not helped his confidence by switching him in and out of the side — but it’s time he stamps his mark on this team. At Juventus, he had the experience of Andrea Pirlo to guide him, but he needs to take charge of this United team.”
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