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Paul Pogba can flourish with a proactive manager at Man United

Paul Pogba has been a lightning rod for criticism after failing to justify the hype since joining Manchester United, but with the sacking of José Mourinho the midfielder can flourish under a new manager.

It didn’t take long for the pitchforks to come out following Manchester United‘s battering at the hands of their arch rivals. Roy Keane was the first to have a go, saying it would be “no big deal” if they were to sell Pogba.

“I think there are one or two problems with players, obviously not on top form,” the Irishman said on Sky Sports’ Super Sunday programme.

And the obvious one being Pogba. If he’s sitting on the bench today and not getting on then you’re thinking his days must be numbered. I don’t think they’ll do anything with Pogba in January but come the summer you move him on.

He later expanded on those comments by saying he has a “bad attitude”, a familiar criticism echoed by his colleague and long-standing Pog-sceptic, Graeme Souness.

“For me, he’s not improved since he came to England,” the Scot told viewers in what had to be the least surprising piece of punditry from the weekend.

If he has a proper attitude he’d have been better than any player out there today – possibly better than any player in the Premier League. But to me, on the outside, he doesn’t look to have a proper attitude.

This followed Jamie Carragher’s hyperbolic comments on Monday Night Football earlier that week that Pogba is the “most undisciplined player of all time.”

You would think that Pogba had just put in the worst performance of his career, that he had been personally responsible for the three goals that United had conceded, that he couldn’t hit a barn door the entire game. He didn’t even get on the pitch on Sunday, but it is clear that the club’s record signing can’t win whether he plays or not.

Here’s the rub: there may be truth in all of those things. He may have an attitude problem, be ill-disciplined tactically and not have improved since returning to the Premier League. But it’s funny how that’s never a problem when he joins up with France.

Didier Deschamps is not a man to suffer these sort of traits in players for long, let alone trust them to reach World Cup glory. Same goes, even more so, for Antonio Conte, with whom he won multiple Scudetti at Juventus. Not exactly the type of managers who would make the “most undisciplined player of all time” central to their plans.

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So why is it that Pogba can do it elsewhere and not for Man United? What’s different about playing for one and not the other? Any guesses? Anyone?

The Mourinho Factor

Both Pogba and Jose Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2016, and for a while it seemed to work. A Europa League triumph was captured at the end of that initial season, while in the next United finished second in the league with the French international peppering the season with performances that justified his transfer fee – most notably the 3-2 win over Man City away – and accumulating 13 assists.

The current campaign has been a disaster on all fronts, however, and Mourinho had seemingly given up all hope of fitting Pogba into his team in the weeks leading up to his sacking. The midfielder has been dropped to the bench for the past three fixtures and hasn’t played a single minute in three of the last five.

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We all know the type of football for which the Portuguese manager has a preference, but at Anfield he truly took the biscuit. With Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic starting in midfield, it was obvious what Mou was going for, and that was compounded at the beginning of the second-half when he brought Marouane Fellaini on instead of Pogba.

The Portuguese had found his scapegoat, which the punditocracy have been more than happy to go along with, but the supporters have stopped buying it. Pogba’s absence may have attracted the most attention, but late introductions of Anthony Martial and Juan Mata drew a lot of criticism. After being annihilated with 36 shots and looking so meek against a bitter enemy, the fans have had enough.

With his many hairstyles, silly (admittedly annoying) Instagram videos, and general flamboyant nature, Pogba is an easy target for the Proper Football Men to criticise. What they fail to ask though is, would he play well at another top club? Could he excel under Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs? Could he improve Arsenal’s starting eleven? Or find a place in Pep Guardiola’s Man City team? And the answer most definitely has to be, yes.

This Generation’s Zizou

Talent wise, Pogba is the closest thing France have produced to Zinedine Zidane since the great man himself retired. That might sound like blasphemy to some, but Zizou was criticised more often than you would think for lacking consistency, for not producing the goods enough when he was needed the most. This has largely been forgotten about through the prism of time and the incredible moments he created over a long career – his brace against Brazil in 1998, the volley against Bayer Levekusen, guiding France to the 2006 World Cup final – as well as the undeniable fact that he was the most talented man on any given Saturday.

For the duration of this past summer Pogba too caused us to forget about his inconsistency and the negative aspects of his game while emulating Zidane in Russia, but he has yet to produce enough of those magical moments to remind us why it’s worth persisting with him. In a Mourinho world, of course, that is nigh-on impossible.

And yet for all of the mitigating circumstances, there is still a feeling that he should be doing better at this stage; he’s liable to silly mistakes, overplaying the ball, and his defensive ability at set pieces appears to be roughly nil. At the moment he is a luxury player in this squad, simply because looking to him to solve this scenario is akin to trying to shine up a turd. It can’t be done.

Pogba is clearly the most talented player at Man United, but even his most staunch defenders have to admit he hasn’t quite justified the hype or money. However, it’s possible to both expect better and cut him some slack. In this writer’s mind he has been scapegoated to a large degree for the club’s woes, when there are much bigger issues within the club which go beyond just one player.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not just Pogba that has been misused by the manager. Just take a look at the talent available up front — Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez, Martial, Mata – and imagine what a forward-thinking, proactive manager could do with that forward line. There is potential for United to be one of the scariest attacking prospects in Europe, never mind England. Instead, Mourinho leaned heavily on defending in a low block despite the fact that the back-line is by far the weakest component of the squad with the obvious exception of David De Gea.

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After two-and-a-half seasons Mourinho is finally out the door. Whether Pogba follows him is another thing altogether, but potential suitors have started to circle this week. Some fans will be happy to see the back of him and start anew in 2019/20, but the chances of United finding another midfielder of that quality with no Champions League football are slim to sweet-fuck-all.

If United do choose to sell, they may be forced to feel the pang of regret that comes with seeing an ex doing better with someone else next year. But if Pogba stays, he has to take this opportunity with both hands and prove the doubters wrong.

 

 

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