Paul Pogba returned to Manchester United’s training ground yesterday as a world champion, having played a key role in France’s success in the summer with his disciplined performances in midfield, creative forward passing, inspirational team talks and, not forgetting, his goal in the final.
Yet before United fans had too much time to get excited about his return ahead of Friday’s opening Premier League game against Leicester, reports emerged that Barcelona are keen to prise him away, and that the player is welcoming the move.
Jose Mourinho and Pogba have endured a strained relationship at times, although, publicly at least, both of them have been keen to stress that they are professional and have respect for each other.
Mourinho has repeatedly defended Pogba against criticism in the past, even claiming that ex-players and pundits were just jealous of the player and his salary.
When the player was left out of the starting line-up on occasion last season, Pogba denied claims there was a rift between him and the manager.
“Not at all!” he responded. “He’s my coach. I respect all his choices.”
During his role as a pundit during the World Cup, Mourinho praised Pogba for his “mature” performances, but it appears some resentment has grown from the tournament still, with questions asked as to why Pogba hasn’t consistently performed as well for United as he did for his country.
When Mourinho was asked what could be done to allow Pogba to replicate that form in a United shirt, the manager was quick to lay all the blame at the player’s feet.
“I don’t think it’s about us getting the best out of him, it’s about him giving the best he has to give,” he said.
Mourinho went on to claim that the tournament setting suited Pogba because he only needed to focus for a short period of time, that every game is a big game and that players often feel “extra commitment” to their country over their club.
It’s quite possible that the manager is feeling some embarrassment that a player who has, by and large, failed to fulfil his potential in Manchester was able to shine in Russia. Yet it shouldn’t be beyond Mourinho to acknowledge that he possibly needed to change his approach too, rather than claiming the only issue was the player himself.
Reports today suggest that Pogba has told his teammates that he is “upset” with Mourinho’s response to his World Cup performances. How hard would it have been for Mourinho to praise Pogba?
To say that he was prepared to do everything he could to support the midfielder in playing as well for his club as he had done his country? The suggestion that the player was choosing to perform as well as he had for France while not being too bothered about how he plays for United is fairly insulting and it’s a battle that the manager shouldn’t be taking on.
Anthony Martial has already made it clear that he wants out of the club, seemingly solely because of the way he was been treated by the manager, yet many of the fans have rallied around Mourinho. How many talented players does Mourinho have to upset, as he does at every club he takes charge of, before United fans say enough is enough?
That’s not to say that Pogba’s problems all lie in the tactics of the manager.
It’s true that Mourinho left out his star player for United’s most important two games of the season, the away draw against Sevilla followed by the home defeat, which was a mistake. But then Pogba didn’t do enough when he was brought on in both of those fixtures. He needs to find a way to motivate himself, even if the manager’s decision to pick Marouane Fellaini, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera ahead of him over the two legs may have understandably dampened his spirit.
Pogba’s best game of the season came in the second half against Manchester City at the Etihad. With United’s rivals setting up fireworks on the stadium’s roof, ready to celebrate their title win after beating Mourinho’s men, Pogba contributed massively to turning a 2-0 defeat in to a 3-2 victory. Yet reports at the time suggested it was Michael Carrick’s rousing half-time speech and tactical analysis that inspired the comeback.
“I give the credit to Michael Carrick,” Pogba confirmed after the game, but shouldn’t that have been Mourinho’s job?
Carrick himself revealed that he took the player aside to motivate him to do better in the second half, yet modestly refused to take the credit, something you could never imagine Mourinho doing; remember, this is a manager who insisted that Luke Shaw played with the his brain after a good performance.
“I just kept it simple and said ‘this is what you are’ and ‘this is what you’re good at’,” Carrick said. “But listen, he scored two goals so it’s not down to me. I’m glad I did have an impact because it shows little things do register with players.”
The season hasn’t even started yet but the negativity that Mourinho creating among players and fans is unprecedented. This is not the way to start a campaign.
There’s always the hope that Mourinho is working wonders behind the scenes, as Shaw has revealed he’s done with him despite the public bashings he routinely has handed out, and has said to Pogba privately what he should have said when interviewed. The Frenchman has only been back a day so there’s time to fix it.
The fact that Mourinho has signed Fred, a midfielder who should help bring out the best in Pogba, can be interpreted as his acknowledgement that he needed to do something differently, even if he’s not prepared to verbalise that.
United certainly won’t be looking to let their star midfielder leave just two days before their transfer window closes but Mourinho should be spending this week instilling confidence in the players and giving them reasons to want to stay.
Pogba playing as he did for France could make a huge difference to United’s season, so it is down to both the player and the manager to ensure this happens.