Jose Mourinho is no stranger to battling with the biggest players at his clubs, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Samuel Eto’o, Iker Casillas, David Luiz, Sergio Ramos and Pepe among the players on a long list that the manager has clashed with.
It appears as though Paul Pogba’s name is the latest to be added, with his agent Mino Raiola taking to Twitter this morning in an attempt to drive a wedge between the player and the club.
Over the summer, Mourinho likely felt the embarrassment of seeing a player he struggled to get the best out of dominating in Russia as France won the World Cup, and responded as he saw fit.
While Mourinho made plenty of complimentary statements about Pogba, there was one in-terview where it appeared as though the manager was digging the knife in slightly, to de-flect the blame from himself.
When asked what the club could do to ensure that Pogba played as well for United as he did for France, Mourinho responded: “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 went on to claim that Pogba had lost his concentration during the season with United and offered “extra commitment” to his country.
Pogba certainly has to take some responsibility for his inconsistent performances last season but it’s unfair for Mourinho to lay the blame solely at the midfielder’s feet. He is the man-ager and has a responsibility to get the best out of his star players through his tactics and man-management skills. He has failed to do that for much of the two years that Pogba’s been at the club.
Still, with Mourinho seeming to acknowledge that taking on Pogba might not be sensible, and with the club likely to take the side of their record signing over the manager, he has done everything he can to calm the situation.
He signed Fred to complement Pogba in midfield, named Pogba captain for the opening two games of the season and was full of praise following his performance on the opening day against Leicester.
After the Leicester game, he took to Twitter to say, “I’ll always give my best to the fans and my teammates no matter what’s going on,” alluding to problems behind the scenes.
Pogba also stopped to talk to the journalists in the mixed zone to share his thoughts, some-thing he rarely does. He talked about the fans and his teammates, but claimed he couldn’t reveal all about his situation or he’d be fined. Shots fired.
To Mourinho’s credit, in his press conference ahead of Brighton, he again attempted to fix the situation. He praised Pogba and told the press not to write lies about his relationship with the player, insisting there hadn’t been any falling out.
“I’ve never been so happy with him as I am now,” Mourinho said. “I cannot demand or ask more from him. He came here on Monday and he trained three days. I asked for his support and contribution in an important match when the team had difficulties and he did it. He did it better and for more time than we could expect. When he says he did it for the fans and for the team, it’s exactly what I want. He’s working well, he’s playing well, he does it for the fans and the team, and that’s what I want. I repeat, I couldn’t be happier.”
Two days later, United lost their first game of the season against Brighton, in a performance that was littered with defensive errors, with none of the players further up the field able to make amends for these errors. Despite going in 3-1 down at half-time, there was no reac-tion in the second half. The players looked as though they didn’t know what they were sup-posed to be doing and largely as if they didn’t care about getting back in to the game.
While this was a worry, Pogba’s admission after the game that his “attitude wasn’t right” sets alarm bells ringing. We are only two games in to the season and the player wearing the captain’s armband is not just criticising his performance level, but the way he approached the game.
This brings us back to Raiola, who has obviously seen Paul Scholes’ comments after the game that Pogba “lacked leadership” and launched an attack on the United legend in re-sponse.
“Some people need to talk for fear of being forgotten. Paul Scholes wouldn’t recognize a leader if he was in front of Sir Winston Churchill. Paul Scholes should become sports director and advise Woodward to sell Pogba. Would be sleepless nights to find Pogba a new club.”
Such claims can be laughed off, given Scholes spent a decade playing alongside one of the greatest leaders the sport has ever seen in Roy Keane. Scholes knows all about excellent leadership, because there were leaders all over the pitch in the teams he played for. You wouldn’t catch Steve Bruce or Eric Cantona or Gary Neville questioning their own attitude in the second game of the season.
In actual fact, a falling out with Scholes is something that Raiola and Mourinho have in common, with the former United midfielder suddenly finding his voice since hanging up his boots and often having negative things to say about the club.
However, this doesn’t help United, with Raiola seemingly desperate to get his player out of the club.
Is this a reflection of the player’s ambitions, or the agent’s want for another mas-sive payday from brokering a deal with Barcelona?
There was a strong response to Raiola’s comments on social media, with Gary Neville telling Pogba to tell his agent to shut up. Former assistant United manager Mike Phelan said: “There was a time when a player’s ability, consistency, attitude, record and application gen-erated transfer activity.”
Football agents hold so much power in football and for as long as Pogba is a Raiola player, United are in trouble. Of course, they had to know this when the super-agent helped get Pogba away from Juventus to Old Trafford two years ago.
Sir Alex Ferguson was well aware of the dangers of Raiola when the pair fell out as the agent initiated Pogba’s transfer to Juve in 2012. In a meeting between the two, Ferguson called Raiola a “tw*t”, before revealing in his autobiography that he didn’t like him and “distrusted him from the moment I met him.” He later described Raiola as a “sh*tbag”.
But when renewing their relationship with Pogba in 2016, the club also brought Raiola back on to the scene, and now they are paying the price.
Just as Paul Stretford got in to Wayne Rooney’s ear to try and force moves away from Unit-ed, we are witnessing the same scenario with Pogba. This is a player who has repeatedly spoken about his love for United, even when he was playing for Juve, and as recently as last week spoke of what it meant to him to play for United.
“I always loved this club. I love the club,” Pogba said last week. “I came in the academy, I grew up. I came from the academy, I played for the first-team. For me, it was a dream come true.”
United certainly won’t sell Pogba this transfer window but the story isn’t over. With Mourinho, Raiola and Pogba the protagonists, it looks as though it’s going to be a long season ahead for United fans.