After taking to punditry on Monday Night Football as naturally as he did the turf of Goodison Park as a barrel-chested 16-year-old, Wayne Rooney provided an intriguing insight into the crux of the problems Paul Pogba is experiencing at Old Trafford.
‘For me Paul Pogba is a classic box-to-box player. He can do a bit of everything really well. If he has that freedom where he doesn’t have to think too much about his defensive role he can cause mayhem.‘
Sound familiar? You’d be forgiven for believing Rooney was critiquing his own time at Old Trafford but instead his words centred on his former teammate, whose inconsistency has become increasingly pressing issue for Jose Mourinho.
The problem, dilemma, enigma, call it was you will, was exacerbated during a chastening 63 minutes at Wembley last Wednesday, the bulk of which Pogba spent admiring the number on the back of Mousa Dembele’s shirt.
It was the first time Pogba had tasted defeat in a Premier League game since October 2016 and the first time Mourinho had substituted the midfielder without him being injured. It was not, though, the first time Pogba had demonstrated such tactical indiscipline.
Pogba was deployed in a midfield-two alongside Nemanja Matic and showed little appetite to harass, close or chase an energetic Spurs midfield containing Dembele, Eric Dier and Christian Eriksen.
Mourinho, clearly shocked at his performance, named Pogba on the bench for a 2-0 win against Huddersfield and replaced him with a relative novice in the shape of Scott McTominay.
Mourinho on dropping Pogba
I changed a few players. It wasn’t to punish anyone. If it was about punishing I would be punished too because we are a team.
Pogba is a fantastic player. One of most talented in the world. To sit on the bench one day is not the worst thing in the world
United have enough in reserve to deal with a home game against the Terriers but make no mistake; Pogba, alongside Alexis Sanchez and David De Gea, represents one of only three world class players at Old Trafford and their slim hopes of silverware this season rest heavier on his shoulders than any other player in Mourinho’s squad.
The irony of dropping Pogba against Huddersfield is that United can well-afford to play him in a midfield two against 75% of their domestic opponents. It’s in games against the top six – where Mourinho has so far failed – that the 55-year-old is yet to formulate anything close to resembling a solution.
Mourinho's record away from home against the top six since joining Manchester United
Games played: 9
Goals scored: 4
Goals conceded: 14
So deflating was the manner of Spurs’ victory, Mourinho will be forced into a change of tactics when Chelsea arrive at Old Trafford in a fortnight’s time but the evidence has been there for 18 months.
Mourinho should have sensed just three games into Pogba’s second stint at the club that the midfielder was too attack-minded, too loose and too undisciplined to be tasked with sitting in a big game. On that day against Manchester City, Pep Guardiola’s men served up 45 minutes of the finest football seen at Old Trafford in recent memory. Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho and David Silva ran circles – or indeed triangles – around the helpless pairing of Pogba and Maraoune Fellaini.
City had a 2-0 lead by the 36th minute and it was only halved thanks to an act of mastery from Zlatan Ibrahimovic shortly before half-time. At the break Mourinho introduced Ander Herrera into the midfield, removed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and stuck Wayne Rooney onto the wing. By removing the 4-2-3-1 of the first half and having an extra body in midfield, United were transformed and stemed the flow of City’s attacking play. Mourinho’s men couldn’t find an equaliser but they looked decisively more solid and created a better base for their attacking players to thrive on.
Pogba, fresh from becoming the most expensive player of all-time, had spent much of the first half trying to make decisive plays from inappropriate areas of the pitch. His tendency for Hollywood is incompatible with Mourinho’s inherent belief that the team that makes the fewest mistakes in matches is more likely to win.
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It’s in these crucial matches that the inherent contradiction of Mourinho’s deployment and fondness of Pogba plays out. The Frenchman makes United tick, that much was clear during his three-month absence earlier this season but the liberties he’s afforded are at odds with the qualities that have made Mourinho the manager he is. A ruthless tactician that wouldn’t allow one player to undermine the greater potential of the collective.
Perhaps it speaks volumes as to Mourinho’s inner feelings about his squad. That what he’s inherited and so far assembled in 18 months is not yet ready to combat running without a player of Pogba’s ilk.
But sympathy can only stretch so far when you’ve spent £89m on one player. United take on Chelsea, Sevilla and Liverpool in the space of a month. In order to win those games United need Pogba but can Mourinho work a solution?
Fellaini provided a viable option to play in between Matic and Pogba in a three but the Belgian is set to miss the next two months with a knee injury so it could be that Herrera is introduced in the bigger games. The Spaniard put in the performance of his United career when he man-marked Eden Hazard out of a 2-0 win against Chelsea last April.
Herrera’s inclusion would allow Pogba to play in his favoured position in a left of a midfield three but in doing so Mourinho would encounter another problem. Alexis Sanchez has played on the left in all three of his games for the club so far and his reliance to come inside would saturate the space Pogba wants to play in.
Nevertheless, it’s Pogba that holds the key to United’s future and he too must shoulder some of the blame for not carrying this United side as consistently as he should. Not since Paul Scholes have United had such a dynamic midfielder and better yet, he’s far from the finished product but consistency is lacking.
The 24-year-old had his choice of clubs around the world when he opted to leave Juventus but he bought into the project sold to him by Mourinho and United. Frank Lampard served as an example of what he can do with a raw, talented midfielder.
It’s about time the Special One came through with his promises and got a tune out of his best player.