On the opening day of the Premier League season many Manchester United fans were delighted with the line-up that Jose Mourinho opted for, particularly in midfield.
Paul Pogba had just won the World Cup with France and was supposed to have the season that answered all the questions from his detractors in his two previous campaigns.
Fred had been brought in for a decent sum of money with the hope that he would be the player that could finally bring out the best in Pogba and allow United fans to enjoy the form France’s had in the summer.
Alongside them was Andreas Pereira, the academy graduate who supporters had once feared had played his last game for United when he defied Mourinho to join Valencia on loan instead of staying at the club to fight for his place. The youngster has bags of potential and, after an impressive year on loan in Spain and pre-season, it appeared as though Mourinho was ready to give him his chance.
This excitement was all fairly short-lived though. The trio were given just two games together before Mourinho went back to the drawing board on his midfield.
Fred went on to make just one start in the league in September, followed by another one in October.
Despite getting a call up to play for Brazil, making his first appearance for his country in September, Pereira hasn’t started a single game since, playing just 35 minutes in all competitions after his inclusion at the beginning of the season.
Pogba, in contrast, has been a mainstay in United’s midfield until recently. In fact, Nemanja Matic is the only outfield player with more playing time than him in the league this season, having had just three minutes more.
In all competitions, Pogba had scored five goals and provided three assists, meaning only forwards Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial have more goals than him for the club, while only Marcus Rashford has more assists. Yet his performance level has largely been below what you would expect for a player of his ability. United supporters are divided on who is to blame for that though.
After a rocky start to the season, where Pogba seemingly took offence to Mourinho’s comments about the player’s increased concentration and dedication during the World Cup, the player went out of his way to inform the country’s media that he would be fined if he told the truth about his current feelings. To follow the opening day victory against Leicester with such unnecessary comments left a bad taste in the mouth for many fans, who had been so eager to see their world champion return to Manchester.
Mourinho was magnanimous for one of the few times in his career and responded with nothing but positive words for Pogba. He shouldn’t get too much credit for this though as it was fairly obvious to all that the Frenchman is head and shoulders above his teammates and if Mourinho was going to get anything good out of the season ahead he needed Pogba onside.
As the season went on, with the blip involving the club’s press officer incorrectly telling Mourinho that Pogba had posted a video to social media of him laughing at United’s defeat to Derby aside, the fall out of which being caught by Sky Sports cameras, the pair appeared to mend fences.
However, that relationship has seemingly again soured, with reports claiming Mourinho called Pogba a ‘virus’ in a dressing room fall out following the team’s 2-2 draw with Southampton. Pogba was particularly awful in that game and gave the ball away an incredible 25 times.
In all matches this season, he has surrendered possession on 252 occasions, an average of 19 times a match.
This is more than any other midfielder in the league. Is this a statistic that can be blamed on Mourinho?
The manager has dropped the Frenchman for the last two Premier League games, which saw United take a respectable 2-2 draw against Arsenal and an impressive 4-1 victory against a wretched Fulham side.
However, against Valencia on Wednesday, United fans may well see the midfield three that started the season. Mourinho has already promised that Pereira will start, as well as confirming that Pogba will make his return.
“He has the potential to be a fantastic player,” said Mourinho. “Against Valencia he is going to start and he is going to have a fantastic game and to show everyone how good he is.”
The presumption is that, having been on the bench recently, he will spring back in to life in United’s meaningless Champions League game against Valencia. Given he has just finished 15th in the Ballon d’Or award, Pogba will likely see the appeal of showing what he is capable of on the world stage. But it’s hard to ignore that supporters are expecting something superhuman from the Frenchman, for him to not have any emotions and to not be in any way demotivated by the manager’s treatment of him.
In any normal circumstances, supporters could agree with a manager dropping a player who wasn’t doing well enough. But Pogba has been paired with Matic all season, who has been poor, and has been trying to create chances for Lukaku, who has been even worse. Yet injury, rather than the manager taking a stance, has largely prompted any of their absences from the team.
If managers didn’t have the ability to massively motivate the players, then their role wouldn’t exist.
Their job is to get the best out of the players. It stands to reason then that they also have the potential to massively demotivate their players too, but Pogba is expected to be above that.
Both have had their part to play in in Pogba’s form this season but, ultimately, the midfielder is the one with the most power to change that. He owes it to the club and the fans to do so, regardless of who is manager, knowing it’s virtually impossible that Mourinho will still be in Manchester next season.
It’s highly unlikely that United can finish top of the group, so it’s easy to see why the players may feel as though there isn’t much to play for, given they have already qualified for the next round. But now is the time for professional pride and for Pogba to do what Mourinho claims he can, and show everyone how good he is.
Against Valencia, he has to be at his best.