The disharmony between Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba continues to thicken. As with so many gifted players who have worked under the Portuguese, the midfielder seems baffled by his manager’s intolerance. As the image of him slumped in the St James’ Park dugout described, this is a player who is not only underperforming, but who seems unsure of why.
In this situation, we must pick sides: we must believe that Mourinho’s rigidity makes his confrontation with elaborately gifted players inevitable, or we should decide that Pogba, who clearly depends on blue collar support in midfield, is an indulged star, resistant to re-education.
Perhaps the truth, though, is that this burgeoning conflict is an inevitable consequence of what Manchester United are. As a club, not just as a team.
Following Real Madrid’s Champions League tie with Paris Saint-Germain last week, Jonathan Wilson wrote about the Disneyfication of football. He wondered whether this – the top-heavy football, the deference to style over substance – was the future for superclubs and whether more traditional concepts of team-building would become outmoded as the petrodollar era develops.
It’s a fair observation. In isolation, that game was littered with mistakes and all four of the goals conceded owed something to defensive chaos. In the past, such fixtures would often by characterised by sterility and caution, with two managers – each with total command of their squads – dousing the spectacle with reticence
Now, increasingly, that isn’t the association. The equivalent games are far looser and, while often more entertaining, the overall technical quality seems to be regressing.
Manchester United are neither PSG nor Real Madrid, but their business model stands comparison. Their transfer policy is similarly instructed by non-sporting imperatives and, in almost every case in recent seasons, the right player for them has been the most famous one.
The club's midfield may have been due a major upgrade for the better part of a decade, but it didn't necessarily want for a player of his technical profile
Within that, Pogba is an interesting case study. By the time he arrived in the summer of 2016, the club’s midfield may have been due a major upgrade for the better part of a decade, but it didn’t necessarily want for a player of his technical profile. United required a true box-to-box player, a master of the broadest possible area, and instead they broke the world transfer record for someone who only excelled in the attacking half of the pitch.
That wasn’t a secret, either. Didier Deschamps famously refused to indulge Pogba in the French national team and, at Juventus, he was always surrounded and backed by the kind of experience and discipline which he’s often maligned for not having himself. No matter where he was deployed in Serie A, his flamboyance was always underwritten by that fabulous three-man defence, framed by two of the most experienced wing-backs in European football, and supported by an otherwise highly complete midfield.
The logic of his time in England, then, is hard to follow. In the same summer as United appointed Mourinho, a notoriously inflexible manager who has never tolerated individualism in that area of the pitch, they signed a core midfield player whose best moments were always ad libbed. Someone who was quite unlike any cornerstone Mourinho element of the past and who, at best estimate, was always likely to create an ideological impasse.
That’s hardly a revelation, but it’s interesting that United chose to override those concerns. Pogba has many, many merits as a footballer, many of which are highly desirable, but sound transfer dealing has always been predicated on more just ability. In this instance, though, Pogba’s celebrity appears to have been the defining factor.
It’s a mentality which also likley governed the Alexis Sanchez transfer. Sanchez, of course, is also a great asset, but his arrival at Old Trafford has predictably come at the expense of others and, perhaps, the performance of the team as a whole. Anthony Martial has been moved out of his favoured position to accommodate the Chilean, while Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard risk further marginalisation. Sanchez may be the superior player, but he is also 29 years-old; it’s a lot of upheaval for – at best estimate – eighteen good months.
But – again – it portrays the power of the must-have item. The value of the player who glints, rather than the one who actually fits.
Maybe from that perspective, Mourinho and Pogba are really unwitting combatants, thrown together by football’s modern realities? Perhaps this is also a glance into the future, where their nuances of a star player’s worth are left in the shadow of their Q rating and during which careers will rise and fall on thermals of only the vaguest theory.