Paul Labile Pogba is one of the best midfielders in the world. Manchester United fans, haters and pundits don’t have to be reminded of that. The only person who doesn’t seem to agree? His own manager.
I’m sure every Red Devil fan would like to erase last weekend’s loss against Newcastle United from memory. A match that would allow José Mourinho’s men to enter next week’s Champions League play full of confidence has instead risen questions about his lack of control in the dressing room. For those lucky enough to have missed the match, allow me to provide a brief synopsis: The defense looked tired, the midfield looked uninspired and our supposed intimidating attacking offense left nothing to be desired.
When Pogba returned to Old Trafford from Juventus in 2016 for a record transfer fee of €105 million, it (supposedly) signaled the resurgence of United’s trophy campaign. Domestic and European championships were back within reach and soon other world-class players would follow Pogba’s example and join the elite club. As the French international readjusted to Premier League play, critics were quick to compare his form to his first tenure with United, including debating if the price tag matched the player. In short, it does. However, there are some caveats.
Immediately after Matt Ritchie’s 65th minute goal that would eventually give The Magpies the full three points, Mourinho subbed Pogba for Michael Carrick, drawing confusion and frustration from the fanbase. In a compromising position, where the attack has been rightfully exposed for two-thirds of the match, The Special One decides his most expensive player should warm the bench. Mind you, this comes fresh off a similar stunt Mourinho pulled against Pogba in United’s appalling January defeat against Tottenham Hotspur. It’s unclear if he wanted Pogba’s abrupt substitutions to be the topic of media scrutiny instead of two embarrassing defeats in an 11-day span; but when the opportunity presents itself to place blame on someone else, Jose Mourinho is not at a loss for words.
Mourinho has been accused in the past of playing his men outside of their true position, but the glaring mismanagement of Pogba’s role is unacceptable. In the last two weeks, six points that should have been awarded to United now sit comfortably on their opponent’s tally.
When Mourinho places Pogba in a midfield three role, he is unstoppable. Not only is the Frenchman free to move about the pitch without a sense of urgency both directions, his form is unparalleled. Much of the hesitation from adopting that lineup must derive from the lack of a holding midfielder on the roster, which would completely relieve Pogba the burden of constantly reverting to a defensive post. While the signing of Alexis Sánchez was world class, as my fellow Busby Babe contributor Garrett Burgon argued, United’s January transfer demands should have really included a midfielder.
In the meantime, this apathetic demeanor of mismanaging your star player is not doing Mourinho any favors. Pogba understands where he will have the biggest impact on the pitch, and that’s at an attacking role. When the game has gone stale, a trick play, perfect cross or sensational free kick from him breathes new life and suddenly the offense understands the necessity of those three points. Without that, it’s suddenly like Sunday’s match at St. James’ Park.
Mourinho is not a fan of players who need time to develop, which explains why fans have caught scarce performances from Scott McTominay. But Pogba’s Old Trafford homecoming came with solid years of positional development, and the boss should work to strengthen those assets. For all the unnecessary conflict Mourinho causes that in turn distracts from the action on the pitch, this is an experienced manager who understands the game, and has the trust of his men to manage them to victory. Rather than demoralizing Pogba’s performance in post-match interviews when your self-constructed midfield two strategy falls flat, revert back to the tried and true method, the one that produced a January win against Everton and earned Pogba man of the match.
Despite the recent shortcoming Manchester United as a team have faced, this is a club experienced in overcoming setbacks, and silencing critics who fear they will never return to the Sir Alex years. As the Red Devils take a break from the Premier League to prepare for this weekend’s FA Cup match against Huddersfield Town and next week’s crucial Champions League Round of 16 showdown against Sevilla, it’s vital that José Mourinho not only generate some morale across his men, but he furthermore plays to his roster’s strengths. Winning matches are much more important than shortsighted lineups to prove a point.