Paul Pogba was initially coy about airing his views to the press when news of an apparent rift between himself and Jose Mourinho wouldn’t abate. “There are things that I cannot say, otherwise I will get fined,” he said after Manchester United’s opening day win against Leicester City on Aug. 10.
His loosening tactfulness since would indicate Pogba’s respect for the authority of his manager has waned.
His latest soundbite following Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers implored United to revive their attacking traditions, therefore digging up popular misgivings about his boss’ tactics. It resulted in Pogba being permanently relieved of his duties as stand-in captain from Tuesday.
Something has to give, and the behavior of both Mourinho and Pogba over the opening weeks of this season suggests both believe it’s not them. If their relationship is beyond repair, Mourinho must be the one to go.
Usually, unless the club’s manager is an oligarch in a similar vein to legendary United handler Sir Alex Ferguson, players tend to win power struggles. Pogba, who cost around £89 million and takes home £290,000 a week, has a status of a sure-fire winner in this fissure behind Old Trafford’s gleaming facade. His arrival was a statement, warding off interest from rivals both across Manchester and Europe, and almost serving as a public condemnation of former chief executive David Gill and the latter years of Ferguson’s 26-year reign. Those were the men who left Pogba feeling unwanted, resulting in him letting his United contract wind down before joining Juventus for nothing in 2012. Four years later, Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman and an aide of the Glazer family, was willing to stump up the cash and show what the previous regime gave up. It was a gamble and outlay that threatened to overshadow Mourinho’s United tenure if the club didn’t compete at the summit of domestic and continental football under his watch.
Then there’s the contrast in how Pogba has been received in England since his return, and his influence over France’s triumphant World Cup campaign during the summer.
Pogba – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly – has corralled criticism over not taking control of United games in the manner that fans and pundits would expect from a player who cost that much. Graeme Souness’ regular on-screen swipes at Pogba’s displays are excruciating and overblown, but it is difficult to argue that the Frenchman has become a general or routine game-changer at United. Those defending the 25-year-old’s form and temperament have simply gestured to Mourinho’s conservative tactics – certainly not the kind of football that United fans are reared on, nor an approach that will see an impulsive, gifted midfielder thrive. Peculiarly for such a large investment, Mourinho didn’t have a team or strategy fit for Pogba; an issue made glaringly obvious when the player was hastily shunted deep in the lineup, rather than on the left of a midfield three where he had thrived for Juventus.
In Russia, Pogba showed adaptability and leadership under Didier Deschamps. Before the tournament, the coach had received similar criticism to Mourinho in how he couldn’t get to grips with what his best team was. He had arguably the best collection of young attackers in world football, but still fielded Olivier Giroud as a focal point up front. Contrary to how some hypothesize his supposed under-par showings at United, Pogba proved he can be a world-class nucleus of a pragmatic schematic.
Every debate seems to weigh on Pogba’s side. He was brought in as a poster boy to begin Mourinho’s rule, and an exit would increase supporter unrest over Woodward’s backroom dealings. His consistent and commanding performances for Juventus have never been revived in a system that preys on errors rather than tries to seize control of matches. He was excellent at the World Cup under a coach whose philosophy bore similarities to Mourinho’s.
Besides, the modern game sees players often last much longer at clubs than managers. Pogba and Mourinho’s in-fighting is unsustainable, but only the latter’s position is untenable if it continues.
Pogba, perhaps with the advice of agent Mino Raiola, seems aware of his power if his recent words are anything to go by. He has flirted with the prospect of a transfer away amid rumors of Barcelona interest, promptly leading to United reportedly stepping away from contract negotiations. Pogba was reprising one of the most popular excuses offered for his below-par outings by calling for less defensive football in Mourinho’s ranks after the Wolves draw.
Mourinho is staggering and doesn’t even have a league position to help him regain his footing. Spendthrift Manchester United are already eight points adrift of first place after six Premier League matches, and an outside perspective of the Pogba-Mourinho spat hints that it is only getting worse for the embattled manager. Woodward may have to wield the ax.