Perspectives: Analyzing Paul Pogba’s Manchester United situation from all angles

‘Perspectives’, a series created by The Footblog, looks at a complicated football topic in detail and attempts to simplify it by explaining the situations experienced by all involved parties in one article.

Football’s mainstream media have largely painted a dire portrait of Manchester United’s summer, which, as several players iterated before and after the Red Devils’ self-explanatory 2-1 win over Leicester City, was not an entirely accurate image.

Mourinho has undoubtedly used press conferences and interviews to push the club to sign players throughout the summer. One such instance occurred when he was asked if he believed new names would arrive at Old Trafford a week before the window slammed shut on August 9th:

“I would like to have two more players. I think I am not going to have two.

“I think it’s possible I am going to have one… If it is possible good, if it is not possible we keep fighting and working and believing in the players that we have.”

Placing pressure on the board to add more players to the side, Mourinho also emphasized his belief in the club’s current playing staff. The latter part of the statement, however, escaped many headlines.

The mistruths above undermine the United manager’s commendation of various members of his current squad, prompting a revisit from the manager in the twilight of the transfer window.

“You (media) repeat 1,000 times my relations with my players is not good. It is a lie, repeated 1,000 times. I like my players. I like my group. I enjoy the last season fight to finish to get the best position for the past 5 years. I am going to enjoy this season again.”

United’s win on Friday, headlined by goals from Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw, temporarily cleared the facade and silenced critics. With attention shifting towards Pogba, who was awarded United’s man of the match award, the quotes drawn from a reported post-match interview of his were damning.

The line encapsulated above, which reads “there are things I cannot say otherwise I will get fined”, is very worrying for Manchester United despite the lack of a video interview to confirm their validity. Many of England’s largest sports outlets have headlined with this quote in the past 72 hours, and much like Mourinho’s comments throughout the summer, Pogba’s interview was largely misreported. His video interview in match zone did not show discontent whatsoever.

“I always love the club. I love the club. I came in the academy, I grew up. I came from the academy, I played for the first team. For me, it was a dream come true. And wearing this, it’s even more because of the past, because of the players that played here, the people that have been wearing this. It’s obviously an honour for me.

“Like I said, when I have this, I have the confidence of the fans. They’re all here, they help me, my teammates, obviously it makes me want to give them love and give them good performances on the pitch.”

Regardless of whether or not the previous quote about being fined is true, Pogba implied discontent with Mourinho in a World Cup interview, rooting back to matches for which he was benched in early 2018.

“It was a better season that the previous one. It was an experience. There were some small issues with [Mourinho], but they were nothing in the end.”

He also posted this cryptic message on his Instagram and Twitter accounts after the match.

The World Cup winner has been linked with Barcelona but there is no indication towards the credibility of the rumours. The English transfer window is closed but the Spanish one remains open until the end of August, leaving a potential opportunity for the French midfielder to leave.

As far as reliable media stories go, it is unclear whether Paul Pogba wants to leave Manchester United.

There is undeniable merit behind the assertion that his relationship with Mourinho could be fractured, a notion which would only be enhanced by some of the above quotes. However, by all accounts, the player loves his current club and has good relationships with other players, as only demonstrated by David de Gea’s Instagram post of the two of them in a car with Swedish defender Victor Lindelöf.

The only other plausible reason as to why the midfielder would wish to leave United is the same reason for which Mourinho was declaring his frustration in the transfer market. Rejoining the club from Juventus for what was a world-record fee in 2016, there was an expectation that Mourinho, who had also just joined the club, would make the Red Devils one of the elite sides in Europe.

Despite winning the Europa League and EFL Cup in Pogba’s first campaign back in Manchester, United finished in sixth-place, and a trophyless second season where United’s only chance to earn silverware came in the FA Cup would have left the midfielder hoping for significant strengthening over the summer.

Instead, the club didn’t achieve transfer targets, which also appeared to unsettle Alexis Sánchez, a player who chose to join United over domestic champions Manchester City in January:

“I would have liked that they had signed many more world-class players. But it’s the club’s decision…

“At United, we have to sign big players, with experience. Barcelona just signed Arturo Vidal, who is a great player and my team-mate from Chile…He is an example of the type of players we need to sign in order to win trophies and compete at the highest level.”

Based on his words about Mourinho during the World Cup, Pogba seems to be unhappy with the fact that he did not start certain matches for his club side last season. The midfielder was benched for a Premier League match between United and Huddersfield, in favour of Scott McTominay, shortly after his non-showing in United’s dire 2-0 loss at the hands of Tottenham.

It happened again in the second leg of United’s Champions League tie with Sevilla. Perhaps due to a fitness issue which caused him to miss the preceding match against Liverpool, Pogba entered the pitch in the second half and looked as unfit as he reportedly was, playing witness as his side exited club football’s biggest competition.

Mourinho benched him, once again for McTominay, in the next match, an FA Cup quarterfinal against Brighton. Asked about his form between this and their next match against Swansea, Mourinho said this:

“It (Pogba’s form) has nothing to do with his injury. His recovery was good.

“Ask him when you have a chance what he thinks about it… I work (to get the best out of him). It’s the only thing I can do. I cannot do anything else.

“I think he is fine after the injury. It was a difficult injury, it was an injury that other players, other clubs, other medical assessments, they end in surgery.

“I think he is more than fine in relation to the recovery from the injury, which is a muscular area sometimes where you have a recurrence. In his case, not at all.” 

These two instances are likely the ones to which Pogba referred in his World Cup interview:

“Being a substitute, that sort of thing, it helps you to grow. I have to accept it.”

They are the only documented reasons for a breach in his relationship with Mourinho, which could be reparable if that is the case. Fixing this player-manager relationship will be considered particularly important because from both a footballing and marketing perspective, losing Paul Pogba would be tragic for Manchester United.

Mourinho’s side started last season in flying form, earning the nickname “4-0 FC” before Pogba’s injury hampered their form and commenced a run which included a home loss to Manchester City and ended Old Trafford’s title hopes before Christmas.

Although the midfielder played less than half of the match which caused United’s Champions League exit, he was not at full fitness/form, and it showed in the turgid football put on display by England’s biggest football club.

Fred is an excellent signing and the promoted Andreas Pereira can add significant quality to United’s midfield, but neither provide an alternative to Pogba, who, at his best, offers the attacking output of a top creative threat and defensive output of a box-to-box operator.

United were linked with Sergej Milinković-Savić of Lazio throughout the summer, but a move did not materialize and thus, it would be ludicrous for United to let Pogba leave now.

Whether Milinković-Savić signed or not, the combination of Pogba’s current stature in world football and his marketing presence render him irreplaceable.

Named the most marketable footballer on the planet by SportsPro in 2017, Pogba represents a loss that the most commercialized club in world football would be reluctant to witness, making negotiations almost impossible for Barcelona should they make a move for the player.

The motivation is there for the Catalan club, though, as Barcelona’s losses of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, two of the most influential midfielders of the last generation who now ply their trade in Asia, as well as Neymar, who left in a breathtaking world-record move to PSG, create both tactical and marketing roles at the club which could be filled by Pogba.

Seeing Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo leave Spain in the last two seasons has arguably caused a power-shift after a lengthy period of Spanish dominance at Europe’s summit. A transfer move for Pogba would help reverse the tides once again, as not only would it make Barcelona a much better and more attractive proposition both on-and-off the pitch, but it would also prompt a response from Real Madrid, who have yet to splash the nine-figure Ronaldo fee on another player.

Barcelona have shown their ability to capitalize upon unsettlement between player and club, as seen with former Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho, whose somewhat unsure future at Anfield became victim of their interest. A month after an approach from the Catalan club, Coutinho, who was still contracted to Jürgen Klopp’s Champions League finalists, said the following:

“What happened was a job offer and, in life, sometimes you get interested; sometimes you don’t and, in my case, everyone knows that I got interested, my family too.”

Only four months later, the Brazilian was a Barcelona player. United’s financial means and pulling power remain greater than that of Liverpool, but if Pogba has his mind set on moving to Spain, Ed Woodward will know that the longer he waits, the more the value of the Frenchman decreases, as he will become increasingly unsettled and be worth a decreasing sum as his contract winds down.

As such, José Mourinho knows that time is ticking for him to fix any arising problems between him and Pogba, because if the board is forced to choose between Pogba and himself, he may not be the victor, unless he is extremely successful this season. His conundrum is that in this current United side, Pogba is a major key to success.

While the manager’s motivation behind his comments about Pogba’s benching could be justified, his subtle jibes at the French midfielder during his punditry stint at the World Cup were futile:

“I think that’s the point about his performance level and his contribution to a winning team – it’s for him to understand why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition, quarter-finals, semi-finals, the final, where he was, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant.”

“I don’t think it’s about us getting the best out of him. It’s about him giving the best he has to give. I think the World Cup is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give the best.”

Should Pogba depart due to a broken relationship with the manager, the onus will be on Mourinho for any resulting decline in United’s performances on the pitch. The 55-year-old proved that he knows the potential impacts of his star’s departure through his post-match comments on Friday.

“Pogba was a monster. We thought maximum [he would play] 60 minutes, but he managed more than 80.

“It was not a hard decision [to start Pogba], the decision was down to him. With Ander Herrera injured, I had only two options, Scott McTominay or Pogba.

“If I played Scott, I would have two kids and a new player [Fred] in midfield. So I asked Paul and he put himself forward for the team and was very, very good for us.”

Pogba’s value, the lack of replacements signed and the lack of clarity surrounding his desire to leave all demonstrate the unlikelihood of the player leaving England this summer. If he is seeking a move, his wish may be granted in January or next summer. Pogba’s contract has three years remaining and the club will not want to enter the final 18 months if their intention is to sell him.

Should José Mourinho be the problem, he likely now has a year to repair his relationship with the player. Failing that, one of the two of them will not be at Manchester United at this time next year. The onus on Mourinho and the United board is to do everything in their power to end speculation and make the player want to play for the club, or alternatively, to replace him well and milk his departure for every last penny.

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