Oh, for Christ’s sake. I knew this was going to happen! Paul Pogba went down early in the second half against FC Rostov, clutching his hamstring and giving that all too familiar my-day-is-done footballer grimace, and United fans everywhere groaned in unison. For weeks, it had been becoming more and more apparent that Pogba needed a rest. The risk of pushing players beyond their physical limits is precisely the sort of injury that Pogba suffered three weeks ago. We saw this coming.
José Mourinho has emphasized throughout his career how much players earn his respect when they show a willingness to play through pain or fatigue. For all his uneven play this season, Pogba is clearly a player Mourinho trusts, and the manager has demonstrated this through playing the midfielder in every meaningful match, without ever substituting him. But there’s a difference between the courage of a player playing through the pain barrier, and the foolhardiness of a manager refusing to rotate a player who is obviously running on fumes.
If there is one silver lining to this predictable outcome of Mourinho’s typical reluctance to rest one of his core players, it’s that Pogba’s relatively minor injury may have come at an ideal time. The Frenchman would have been all but guaranteed to appear in both matches for his country during the international break, as well the matches against Middlesbrough and West Brom that book-ended it. Assuming that he isn’t being rushed back to face Everton, this enforced break could be just the breather that Pogba needed.
Pogba’s importance to the side has grown in his absence, albeit for unfortunate reasons. Juan Mata had surgery to repair a groin injury over the international break, and is out for “a long time;” potentially the rest of the season. Mata does not enjoy the same untouchable status under Mourinho as Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović, or Antonio Valencia, but the little Spaniard is a key player, and United’s most consistent attacker. None of United’s other attackers or midfielders are as reliable a source of goals and assists, and Mata’s injury could well change the course of the season. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan - brilliant as he is - blowing hot and cold of late, Pogba’s creativity becomes even more vital to a United team that has looked frequently uninspired.
Adding further pressure on the still young shoulders of Pogba is the unacceptable lack of midfield depth at the club. Bastian Schweinsteiger was never in the proper condition while at United, and Morgan Schneiderlin apparently failed to make much of an impression on anyone, but both of those would have been useful now, even if just for the extra bodies. As it stands, Pogba’s “natural replacement” is Marouane Fellaini - a player whose limitations are well known.
Pogba is still finding his feet as a United player, but he’s already shown enough flashes of genuine brilliance to suggest that he could become the marquee player in this league very soon. With Mata absent, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford enduring difficult second seasons, and little other midfield support, Pogba will need to make that step up in the coming weeks. His importance to the side is such that any major injury could have ended United’s chase for Champions League qualification on two fronts. But maybe this minor hamstring injury could provide the respite that revitalizes Pogba, and save the club’s season.