Paul Pogba will have been disappointed with his perforce in Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Southampton on December 1. The World Cup winner is an elite athlete and one of the most gifted footballers around; he will know his standards slipped at St Mary’s and he won’t have been happy about it.
He likely wouldnt have anticipated his below-par showing having such far-reaching effects, however.
In the immediate aftermath, in the away dressing room after the game, Jose Mourinho reportedly labelled the Frenchman a “virus” whose poor attitude and hesitancy in possession spread to those around him.
Pogba was subsequently dropped for the visits of Arsenal and Fulham to Old Trafford, with the 25-year-old not even getting off the bench in the latter fixtures, a 4-1 win.
In truth, United’s performances have improved in the games Pogba has missed. The Red Devils were far from perfect against the Gunners, but they pressed with renewed vigour and displayed energy levels not seen inside the Theatre of Dreams for some time.
And against Fulham they flew out of the blocks and blew their relegation-battling opponents aside as United expect to do on home turf, but have too often failed to do in recent seasons.
But the fact remains that Pogba is, by some distance, United’s most talented outfield player; when he is on his game, Mourinho’s men are an altogether different prospect, boasting a certain flow and creativity that only the game’s finest players can inspire.
It is fair to suggest that the former Juventus playmaker hasn’t come close to reaching the heights expected of him upon his world-record return to Old Trafford in the summer of 2016, and for one so gifted fitting him into a balanced starting XI presents more of a conundrum that it really should.
It is games like the one coming up on Sunday afternoon, however, that Pogba was bought for. United travel to Anfield to take on bitter rivals Liverpool.
And the 20-time champions find their old foes in alarmingly good fettle, top of the Premier League and yet to taste defeat domestically this term, not to mention having received a further morale boost by securing qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League by virtue of a 1-0 win over Napoli at Anfield on Tuesday night.
United’s own fortunes this season contrast greatly with the Reds of Merseyside. While both sides have booked their place in the knockout rounds of Europe’s premier club competitor – with United doing so a whole game earlier than Liverpool – Mourinho’s men are a lowly sixth in the Premier League, a full 16 points off their upcoming opponents.
The temptation for Mourinho, of course, will be to travel to Anfield and park the bus, as he has done so often in recent years. Liverpool’s vaunted front three are beginning to click back into full gear, so making defensive preparations for their threat is advised.
The presence of Pogba in midfield, though, would enable United to go into hostile territory set up like a Mourinho side of old: one drilled to within and inch of its life but bold enough to strike on the counter at any opportunity.
Stacking the middle third with less creative, more defensive-minded midfielders might add a percentage or two to United’s hopes of a clean sheet, but the gaping creative void in the line-up if Pogba does not start will betray an ambition deficit.
Pogba is the one who can conjure a rapid attacks from a defensive positions; he can go past opponents with his skill and speed; he can threaten goal from distance and slice defences asunder with through-balls.
And for all his faults, for all the criticism of him, no United player has more big-game acumen than the flamboyant Frenchman, a scorer in the World Cup final just a few months ago and Champions League runner-up with Juventus.
In dropping Pogba, Mourinho sent a clear message about standards and discipline. After two games on the sidelines, that message has now been received loud and clear. Point proven. The only points the United manager needs to concern himself with now are those on offer at Anfield, where he’ll need his best player.
*Odds subject to change