The tensions between Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba have become a symbol of Manchester United’s struggles, writes Adam Bate.
The claims that Jose Mourinho referred to Paul Pogba as ‘a virus’ after Manchester United’s 2-2 draw at Southampton are explosive but no longer that surprising. The relationship between the club’s manager and their record signing has appeared strained for some time and this is just the latest indication of the tensions at the heart of an underachieving club.
Mourinho had alluded to his dissatisfaction after the game at St Mary’s and it didn’t require detective skills to ascertain the source of his ire. Asked about his team’s comeback, he said: “In that period the people on the ball they made the right decisions. They played one-touch and two-touch football. They made the ball arrive quickly into the two attacking players.
“Fundamentally, it was because we didn’t lose the ball easily. We increased the tempo when we made the right decisions and when we played simple. Somebody told me many years ago that simplicity is genius. I agree totally with that old manager who had that brilliant phrase. I think many, many years after, in some areas of the pitch, simplicity is still genius.
“Even the little chances that they had were because we lost the ball. So we did not have continuity in our attacking waves. We had it in isolation and for five, 10 or 15 minutes we could not connect with the strikers. That continuity comes when you have fluid football, simple football in midfield, and we did not have that.”
The specific loss of possession that Mourinho is likely to have been referring to was the sloppy control by Pogba that allowed Nathan Redmond to test David de Gea from distance. But unlike United’s attacks, this was not an isolated incident. Wastefulness was a theme, with Mourinho infuriated by one attempt to flick the ball one way before running the other.
Pogba had hinted at the performance that was to come much earlier. He produced a brilliant piece of control to recover from a slip as the ball fell from the sky, only to then delay so long that he surrendered possession anyway. It was typical of his all too casual approach on an evening in which he gave the ball away no fewer than 25 times.
That would not be the worst statistic if it could be explained by his desire to make things happen, but Pogba did not create a single chance for his team-mates either. Huddersfield’s Philip Billing and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka are the only other central midfielders to have lost possession that many times in a game without creating a chance so far this season.
Pogba completely misjudged what was required and it is safe to assume that it was not what his manager had asked from him either. That’s a huge disappointment given that his leadership qualities were evident at the World Cup and Mourinho responded to the signs of growth in Russia by not only putting him on penalties but giving him the captaincy.
In August, Mourinho even suggested that the relationship was stronger than ever. But Pogba’s subsequent comments about the team’s style of play saw the captaincy experiment abandoned and any semblance of trust between the pair seems to have eroded once more. It is increasingly difficult to imagine that United can flourish while the situation continues.
This would surely be a straightforward case of an expensive transfer gone wrong were it not for the fact that many supporters feel that Pogba has a point. The problems at the club run deep and while some might be prepared to buy the insinuation that the failure to beat Southampton rested on the team’s midfielders, it does not begin to explain why United find themselves in seventh with a negative goal difference in December.
Mourinho wants his players to “move the ball faster” but the onus cannot just be on Pogba. He needs players around him that can do the simple things quickly. For three of his four years at Juventus, he was accompanied in midfield by the magnificent but metronomic Andrea Pirlo. With Fred failing to impress, he has Marouane Fellaini for company at United.
The blend in midfield – as elsewhere – is still not right. And it is worth remembering that Pogba is not some misfit inherited by Mourinho. He is the British record signing around whom he presumably intended to build his team upon taking over in 2016. More than two years on and their dysfunctional, perhaps toxic, relationship leaves United in limbo.
Both men have a case and that is why there is unlikely to be an easy resolution. Pogba can continue to believe that his strengths are being neutralised by his manager. Mourinho can keep telling himself that his star player is undermining the team’s efforts. Some viruses can be overcome in a matter of weeks. This sickness at Manchester United appears terminal.