A weekend that began with another round of Jose Mourinho publicly defending Paul Pogba from criticism ended with the French midfielder, once again, exposed to the wolves.
For the second game out of three, Man United were staring down the barrel of defeat, and for the second game out of three, Mourinho’s answer was to remove Pogba from the field of play.
In the match in between those two, a 2-0 win at home to Huddersfield, Pogba was conspicuous by his absence from the starting lineup, replaced in the first eleven by Scott McTominay in what was just the 21-year-old’s second-ever Premier League start.
That sends out a certain message, whether Mourinho means to or not. Regardless of whether anyone necessarily feels that Pogba should be the sole standout player to mount a comeback in the event of going a goal down, there is simply no excuse for feeling as though a 36-year-old Michael Carrick, making his first league appearance of the season, is a better option.
Mourinho would probably prefer that to reflect poorly on Pogba, when it actual fact it just throws more fuel on the theory that the manager simply doesn’t know what to do with the £89m midfielder at his disposal – or worse, he does know and is stubbornly refusing to adapt to it.
At this point, even the dogs in the street know that the current tactical setup simply isn’t getting the best out of Pogba. Operating in a midfield two with Nemanja Matic with Jesse Lingard as a number ten – especially away from home – not only stifles him, but leaves Man United exposed in the midfield. It means that he hasn’t got the freedom to find space further forward, but doesn’t have the tactical discipline and rigidity so he tries to do that anyway and leaves gaps in the midfield.
At some stage, Mourinho is going to have to accept this. The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney have been quite forthright in their view that Pogba should be operating in a midfield three with a defensive-minded player behind him, a view that the manager was quick to dismiss on Friday. Over the course of that rebuttal, Mourinho kept referring to Pogba as a “midfielder” without elaborating.
Those comments are troubling, not least because of their simplicity. It verbally implies what seems to be more open in his actions, that he expects Pogba to fall into line and adapt to his system rather than the other way around.
Of course, Pogba himself also has to take some responsibility for his poor form lately – but as Mourinho will be all too aware from his spells at Real Madrid and Chelsea, the era of player power means that the manager will always face the harshest criticism at times like this.
Mourinho has to pick this battle very carefully. He was able to publicly castigate the likes of Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mhitaryan from a position of authority, safe in the knowledge that fan appreciation of those players paled starkly in comparison to how they felt about the manager. In a straight shootout, he would survive and he knew it.
Pogba, however, is a different animal. He is intrinsically linked to Man United’s future, far more than Mourinho is. There’s a lot riding on the club’s record signing being a major success at Old Trafford; failure (or anything even approaching it) simply isn’t an option.
If Jose was dealing with a football man as his superior then perhaps he’d have more leverage, but Ed Woodward is not a football man. He is a businessman. Nobody should be able to point to the fact that the signing of Alexis Sanchez caused an upsurge in shirt sales and social media traffic and say that it is a victory for the football club, yet here we are. (Not to suggest that Woodward will ultimately choose between Pogba and Mourinho based on which of the two has more Instagram followers, but I’m not inclined to fully rule that out either…)
Mourinho can point to the trophies won in his first season as progress, and that is fair, but there’s only so long that he can dine out on an EFL Cup and a Europa League, cups that would have been an afterthought in the Ferguson era, while throwing upwards of £100m at the squad every year and insisting that his reign has been a success.
For all intents and purposes, sixth to second in the table is a positive, as is progress in the Chapions League, yet there’s no ignoring the Guardiola-shaped elephant in the room. All along, Mourinho and Man United were able to pass off Man City’s form as a freakish train that there is simply no keeping up with, and yet that lead has now stretched to 16 points.
At no stage, ever, should a club like Man United be 16 points behind in the title race. Man City’s lead at the top could be halved and they’d still be dominating the league – that’s not down solely to their brilliance, it’s down to every single team below them not being good enough to get anywhere near them, including Man United.
Getting the best out of Pogba will probably be the making or breaking of Mourinho at Old Trafford – the Premier League title this season is beyond them, but both player and manager are going to have to find a way of maximising each other’s ability if they are to end that six-year wait for a league in 2019.