How Can Mourinho Solve the Pogba Problem?

Richard Cann  |  5th June 2018

Selling Paul Pogba in a World Cup summer, with so much other transfer business required as Jose Mourinho looks to upgrade his defence and replace the departed Michael Carrick and the likely departing Marouane Fellaini, didn’t ever seem likely. In practical terms it would be hugely time consuming and it is difficult to identify a club that currently has the money and will to pay the sort of fee United would ask, particularly after what has been a frustrating season for the Frenchman.

If confirmation was needed that the status quo will persist for another year at least it was provided on Monday by Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano, staffer for transfer guru Di Marzio, who tweeted:

Man United do NOT want to sell Paul Pogba this summer: José Mourinho has decided, he doesn’t want Paul to leave the club.”

A man with transfer tentacles everywhere, Di Marzio has proven an impeccable source of stories regarding clients of Dutch super-agent Mino Raiola.

The news will not delight all United fans. In the last six months the narrative has changed somewhat around the midfielder, whose form has slumped after a promising first eighteen months at the club he controversially left as a teenager to join Juventus. As we have seen in periodic glimpses Pogba is a prodigious talent, but rather like the other technical, creative players at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho has struggled to create the conditions for him to play to his potential. Had he not enjoyed a sensational and successful four years in Turin there would be understandable doubts about the Frenchman’s talent, but like Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez we’ve seen that he can offer so much more.

Anthony Martial is 21/20 with RedArmyBet to stay at United this summer. 

There is no simple explanation for United’s stuttering form and disjointed football last season, but the factors that have influenced the relative underperformance have also contributed to individuals struggling to influence games. Mourinho’s team, regardless of the players or system utilised, has been slow, unimaginative and one-dimensional in attack. The selection of players in wide areas who tend to drift inside has led to a lack of width and the full backs have not been of sufficient quality to overlap, drag defenders wide and deliver quality crosses. There is too little movement and too often attacks fall apart in a congested central channel. For the midfield, the passing options ahead of them are often minimal. This is a team that is difficult for any midfielder to play in.

In addition, the balance of that midfield has never looked quite right. Nemanja Matic is a fine player, but his lack of mobility means that in a two his partner has to be disciplined and do a lot of running. Pogba’s game has always been about what he can do going forward, and shackling him means negating his best qualities. His best performances in 17/18 came in a midfield three and we saw the damage he can cause with his two goals in the wonderful comeback at The Etihad. But the Frenchman has not performed like that enough, something which we can only partially excuse with formations. Too often his passing is lazy and the wrong option is taken and his languid style means that if the ball is lost it is difficult for him to get back and recover it. The United midfield needs more energy, positive passing and dynamism for this team to thrive in an offensive sense. With this in mind the acquisition of the Fred from Shakhtar looks to be a smart move. The Brazilian is a mobile, positive box-to-box player who can also sit deep when required. His talents may compliment Matic and Pogba well.

The acquisition of better full backs should also help. Teams have learned that they can defend deep and narrow against United in the knowledge that the threat from wide areas is negligible. Too often when Pogba picks up the ball he is faced with a congested central channel, his own teammates stepping on his toes and few options for a pass. The natural consequence of this is that he holds onto the ball too long, shoots from distance or attempts to dribble in areas in which he would naturally look to move the ball on. His decision making must improve, but at the same time Jose Mourinho needs to provide a team that gives Pogba actual decisions to make.

Any United player to win the Golden Boot at this summer’s World Cup is 14/1 with RedArmyBet.com 

On a human level, the Frenchman comes across as a confident, self-assured and happy young man, unaffected by the pressure on his shoulders or the constant jibes about his hair or demeanour. At £89m he was, rightly or wrongly, expected to be a consistent match-winner. But it was noticeable how mid-season injury and then Mourinho’s ire after the collective shit-storm at Tottenham in the Premier League impacted upon his performances. His manager’s frustration at times has been understandable, but like Martial and Rashford one wonders if Mourinho’s use of the stick rather than the carrot has been misguided and counter-productive. The Portuguese has changed from a man who used to elicit the adoration of his players, to a miserable grump who will happily throw his charges under the bus to excuse poor team performances. Fergie gained the respect and total compliance of his team by keeping strife in-house, and Mourinho might perhaps be better off doing the same.

The news that Paul Pogba is likely staying at United will not delight everyone, but this is a period in the club’s recovery when it feels like it simply cannot give up on players with the talent and potential of the midfielder. The Frenchman’s form seems intertwined with that of the team and if the manager can finally get his side playing with fluidity and width then Pogba is likely to revel in the extra offensive space that will create. A better midfield balance should also be a positive force, and the hope will be that Fred can offer the dynamism that Matic, Pogba and the team as a whole needs. The Portuguese also has to recognise that publicly admonishing and ostracising the player at a time when all were underperforming didn’t seem to solve the problem, and perhaps a softer approach may be more effective. However, whilst Mourinho can create better conditions for Pogba to excel it is ultimately incumbent upon the player to make better decisions on the pitch and to justify the hype. For manager and player this must be a two-way street.

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