All is not well at Manchester United.
In a dressing-room dressing-down after the Red Devils drew 2-2 with struggling Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium on Saturday, Jose Mourinho reportedly labelled Paul Pogba “a virus”, as tension festers within the club.
United are seventh in the table after 14 games, 16 points off top, eight behind fourth-placed Arsenal and own a negative goal difference. The 20-time champions need a quick turnaround if they are to rescue their season, but the reports of division and in-fighting suggest the necessary harmony for a revival is conspicuously absent.
Some fans continue to back Mourinho, feeling he is being let down by his overpaid and underperforming players, while others take the side of Pogba and co, believing the Portuguese manager is overdue his P45.
But, as a our friends at Football Whispers explain, there is no winner in the Mourinho vs Pogba battle: everyone loses, most of all the club. Both are letting the side down and must do better.
“You don’t play,” Mourinho, according to The Telegraph, told Pogba after the Southampton draw. “You don’t respect players and supporters. And you kill the mentality of the good honest people around you.
“You are like a person with a flu, with a virus in a closed room – you pass that virus to the others.”
Mourinho is never one to mince his words or hold back when he feels he has been wronged. Whether it’s the opposition, officials or his own charges, the fiery former Real Madrid and Inter Milan boss can be scathing, in private and public.
The language reportedly directed towards Pogba may have been a little harsh, but the underlying point was entirely valid: Pogba was atrocious against Southampton. The Frenchman frequently lost possession, often when under little or no pressure, and showed a frustrating lack of desire to atone for his errors throughout.
Taking a broader view, Pogba has thus far failed to live up to expectations since his £89million return to Old Trafford in 2016. Often are the times when the World Cup winner is United’s best performer, but that is a low bar and in itself not a ringing endorsement of his impact.
It may well be the case that Mourinho’s tactics – or, more pertinently, the manager’s overarching football philosophy – are prohibitive to the conditions in which the gifted 25-year-old can thrive, but that cannot completely excuse the midfielder. He was billed as a transformative signing and has ambitions of being a Ballon d’Or contender, but he remains a long way off such status.
Pogba showed at the World Cup, starring as France claimed a second crown, that he can operate within a restrictive system. In Russia, the United playmaker showed all of the discipline and impeccable decision-making Mourinho has long demanded of him at Old Trafford.
It seems, when in United red, Pogba feels entitled to a free-spirited role, allowed to conjure and create without reproach for mistakes or the need to chip in when the ball needs to be recovered. His gifts are undeniable, yet Pogba must learn to subjugate himself for the greater good at times, meeting his manager at least halfway.
Mourinho needs more from Pogba, his biggest star and most talented outfield player. But Pogba, the rest of the United players and the fans need more from Mourinho.
They need the “Special One” to rediscover the tactical nous and Midas touch that led to no one questioning that famous self-proclamation upon talking the Chelsea job in 2004. They need Mourinho to show he can solve the problems currently afflicting United on the field, rather than creating more.
Mourinho’s constant harking back to his own successful past serves no one but himself; reminding the world of his three Premier League titles means nothing to United fans when those honours were achieved at Stamford Bridge, not Old Trafford.
Instead of focusing his energy on self-preservation, protecting his reputation and shifting blame elsewhere, Mourinho must funnel all his effort into rescuing United’s season.
*Odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell