Paul Pogba’s inclusion in the starting eleven for the league opener at Old Trafford on Friday night was a welcome surprise. Having gone the distance in Russia with France, and consequently no pre-season, Pogba put in a commanding display still glowing from ‘World Cup winner’ prefixing his name. If returning to United and domestic football is rather back-to-school, Pogba has just breezed through the common room reeking of confidence with tales of a holiday romance.
José Mourinho, meanwhile, recognises he needs Pogba. More than Pogba needs him. Returning to training four days before the season starts, Mourinho said his midfielder had arrived “happy, proud, a desire to work.” So far so good. An olive branch for the Frenchman, followed up with effusive praise for Pogba’s “monster” performance captaining the side. “We thought maximum 60 minutes but he managed over 80,” Mourinho gushed.
Then Pogba decided he fancied a chat in the mixed zone, which he rarely does. “There are things I cannot say, otherwise I will get fined,” Pogba gave in response to a question on his happiness at Manchester United. Assuming he was referencing the manager, a slapping forehead emoji of a decision for their relationship batting away Mourinho’s initial efforts. You also could interpret it as frustration at the lack of further investment and ambition to match his recent standing, but it’s unlikely. At a guess, Pogba probably feels he’s kept his counsel last season relative to Mourinho and, flush with pride, is entitled to flex his muscles to protect his image. His agent, naturally, agrees.
How Mourinho responds, if at all, will shape their existence for however long they’re together, unless it’s already terminal. Mourinho can’t afford to fall out with Pogba; he knows it, Pogba knows it. But the manager can only let so much slide, aside from his own penchant for conflict and control. United fans will hope that it’s merely posturing from the player before knuckling down and embarking on a marriage of convenience with Mourinho.
The alternative is a tumultuous battle Mourinho knows he won’t be supported with if Anthony Martial is anything to go by. Furthermore, the club announcing that a Director of Football would be employed in due course would normally sit well, but its timing raises suspicions of less power for Mourinho and more for Ed Woodward. If Pogba’s beef was with the board, he hasn’t helped his manager much.
Mourinho will need to give Pogba some slack, though in return for his player providing the discipline he did for his country. Discipline, even with Mourinho, isn’t simply rigidness – it’s in picking your moments, whether that be a pass, a shot or a tackle. Taking the flair from Pogba defeats the point and our enjoyment of him. But there are times when one more touch or one more turn in key areas isn’t the correct one, which in turn fuels recklessness winning back possession if it breaks down. In Russia, Pogba’s discipline was excellent and it didn’t inhibit his game.
United’s midfield looked balanced in Pogba’s favour on Friday night – slick with Andreas Pereira holding between him and Fred – and a firing front three would make better use of the service. There’s an opportunity for Pogba to be the heartbeat of the side which Mourinho appears to be working towards. Much was made of Mourinho making Pogba captain but the manager confirmed, to a collective sigh, only in the absence of Antonio Valencia.
Both parties will need to meet in the middle if they’re going to have a worthwhile season. Beyond that, both are clearly unafraid of protecting their cause and have huge stock in their own character, so any attempt to succeed together will have to be genuine. Otherwise the soap opera will be the only thing box office at Old Trafford.