Paul Pogba. He was the most expensive player in the world let us not forget, but things just don’t seem to be sitting well for the Frenchman at Manchester United.
The £89.3 million man has found his place in the United starting place under threat from 21-year-old Scott McTominay, who had played just two games for the club before the start of the season.
Pogba is a fantastic player, a man who went 36 Premier League games unbeaten, so what is the problem? Well, all signs point towards an unhappy marriage between the 24-year-old Pogba and manager Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho is very demanding of his players. If everyone is not pulling in the same direction, he's not afraid to pull the plug, even if you are one of the best players in your position in the world.
Cold shoulder or selfless coaching?
Jose Mourinho has helped improve plenty of players during his managerial career but often indirectly. If we look at perhaps the two best players in the Premier League this season, Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne, both were coached by Mourinho earlier in their careers.
Perhaps both arrived at Mourinho’s Chelsea too early in their careers and didn’t have the experience to perform to his demands. In a Mourinho side, you defend from the front, with defensive positioning utterly paramount.
Mourinho and previous employers Chelsea may rue that Salah and De Bruyne were sold on and among the best players in the world, with both players scoring against Chelsea this season, but they are both no doubt better players for working under Jose.
Although they are attack-minded players, it’s not as if they don’t perform their defensive duty. Kevin De Bruyne was deployed as a wide midfielder under Jose at Chelsea, and after flourishing as an attacking midfielder for Wolfsburg, he looks completely at home in a deeper, central midfield role at Manchester City. The 26-year-old Belgian is often the first to press the opposition when the ball is lost under Pep Guardiola, and it is a facet of his game that is deeply underrated. De Bruyne has made 49 tackles so far in the Premier League this season, more than double Pogba's 24.
As for Salah, he has been compared to Lionel Messi on more than one occasion this season, however Egyptian doesn’t just wait for his side to win the ball back like the superstar Messi. In the Champions League this season, the Liverpool has run 20km more than Messi. Salah, 25, is asked a lot by manager Jurgen Klopp, with The Reds the undoubted kings of the press in the Premier League this season.
Juan Mata, a player who has struggled under Jose Mourinho, was let go by the Portuguese manager at Chelsea to Manchester United due to his lack of defensive ability. Upon his departure from Stamford Bridge, Mata still thanked the manager stating that he made him a stronger player.
The Pogba-Sanchez complex
One world class player + another world class player is the perfect equation, right? Well, looking at how things have gone since Alexis Sanchez joined Manchester United in January, it doesn’t quite add up.
Alexis Sanchez has now played eight games for United since his swap deal from Arsenal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, suffering two defeats. That’s not a bad return, but things just don’t look fluid on the pitch.
In those eight Sanchez games, Pogba has started just four, and in the two defeats, the Frenchman was subbed off on both occasions. Yes, the Reds may have defeated Chelsea with both on the pitch, but neither had a telling impact on the pitch.
Are both players being stifled just like many other players to have worked under Jose Mourinho? If you look at Eden Hazard’s form of last season, it’s not a terrible claim. The quick-footed Belgian netted 17 goals as Chelsea won the title under Antonio Conte, compared to the six in the previous season under Mourinho.
The Portuguese has his work cut out in getting the best out of both players in such a defensive-minded setup. The price he may have to pay is sacrificing young stars Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Both were strikers when they came onto the scene at Old Trafford but have been moved out to the left wing as they learn their trade. The problem here is that Alexis Sanchez’s best position is out wide on the left. What does Mourinho do?
It could be a risk, but it has worked for Real Madrid this season, and Mourinho has used a 4-4-2 diamond system in the past. The back four remains the same, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young or Luke Shaw having no difficulty in getting forward and providing the width.
The midfield is the crucial area. Mourinho should implement Nemanja Matic at the base of the diamond, with Pogba on the left-hand side and Ander Herrera or Scott McTominay on the right. In this current vein of form, Jesse Lingard should start in the attacking midfield role, with Juan Mata a great option off the bench. Mourinho can then line up with Alexis Sanchez playing off Romelu Lukaku up front.
With the pace of Rashford and Martial, the trickery of Juan Mata and the strength and experience of Zlatan Ibrahimovic off the bench, United’s squad suddenly starts to look a lot more dangerous.
The Modric model
Luka Modric is now one of the best, if not the best, central midfielder in the world. When he was at Tottenham, the little Croatian operated close to a number 10, scoring four more goals than he has at Real Madrid, in 18 months less.
Now 32, Modric is far more defensively responsible, operating in a box-to-box role for Real Madrid, winning the Champions League three times. Modric worked under Jose Mourinho for just a season at the Bernabeu, and it looks as if we have seen the benefits of his tutelage beyond that year.
Mourinho must now do the same for Pogba, who is a greater defensive asset than what Modric was when he arrived in Madrid. When Pogba was at Juventus, he was named Il Polpo Paul (Paul the Octopus) due to his long legs allowing him to gobble up the ball from the opposition attackers.
Pogba turns 25 this month, and he still has time to become the complete midfielder. Having someone as attacking as Alexis Sanchez in front of him will be a challenge, but there is no question he has the ability to become a great at Old Trafford. Whether this is under Jose Mourinho like Modric, or if it is away from the Portuguese like a De Bruyne or Salah remains to be seen.