Without a match in seven days and with both performances and results patchy, it was inevitable that rumours of disquiet at Manchester United would begin to emerge.
It is perhaps more concerning that both sides of the supposed argument leaked the apparent disquiet between United boss Jose Mourinho and star midfielder Paul Pogba simultaneously.
Duncan Castles, a journalist close to Mourinho’s camp and his agent Jorge Mendes, wrote two separate pieces outlining the French midfielder’s discontent at Old Trafford.
One suggested he was unhappy with Manchester United’s formation and specifically, the role he was being requested to play within it, while the other suggested his ‘ego’ had been damaged by the arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal.
L’Equipe - France’s biggest-selling sports paper – also revealed an insider’s view of the 24-year-old’s unhappiness in England, and titled a piece detailing his ‘regret’ at returning to Manchester 18 months ago.
The paper spoke of ‘difficult relations with Mourinho’ and also ‘the level of United’s play’, leading to the midfielder ‘going through a dark period which feeds his reflection on his future’.
The last three matches have been particularly problematic for the former Juventus midfielder, whose move to Old Trafford in August 2016 broke the world transfer record at the time at £89 million.
Hauled off in the side’s meek 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, Pogba was then excluded from the starting line-up who defeated Huddersfield three days later.
There was more confusion the following week, with Pogba appearing to sustain a knock in the warm-up before taking on Newcastle and once more playing below par before being taken off when his side fell behind.
One of Mourinho’s most pressing conundrums of recent weeks is what formation to use and where the Frenchman should be deployed within it.
Recently Pogba has been played alongside the more conservative Nemanja Matic in a 4-2-3-1 formation but critics have suggested the Red Devils should switch to a 4-3-3 which would allow Pogba – commonly viewed as their most talented player – more freedom in offensive areas.
His Serbian midfield partner was viewed as a welcome addition with the ‘freeing up’ of Pogba in mind, yet his performances from a defensive point of view have often flattered to deceive and he has often been left exposed.
Ander Herrera’s form has nosedived this season and, alongside Marouane Fellaini, he has had fitness issues.
With Michael Carrick in his final year, some have touted Scott McTominay as a viable replacement. However, although he appears to be a competent holding midfield, he does not seem to be a long-term solution in the role.
The secondary question would then be which of the attacking four would make way for a more advanced Pogba?
Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez appear to have their positions guaranteed, leaving Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata all vulnerable.
It is also fair to say that Mourinho, who has often been criticised for being too cautious in ‘big’ matches, is now being criticised for attempting to facilitate more attacking-minded players.
Pogba is a ‘modern’ player who roams from midfield who combines prime physicality with a high level of ability, while Mourinho has frequently been said to prefer more ‘dependable’ players who would stick to strict tactical instruction.
However, the signing was made at behest of the manager with the player also reportedly keen to ensure his return, raising questions about the underlying logics of the tranfer.
It is fair to assume media reports are exaggerated but it would be naïve to assume there is no smoke without fire when multiple sources report disquiet between two self-confident individuals with plenty to prove at their current club. Yet media leaks are hardly the way to go about curing relations or benefitting squad harmony.
What is clear is that both must find a solution to the pressing question of where Pogba should be played, what his responsibilities should be and how Manchester United can maximise his high-level potential.
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