Just when it seemed everybody had had their say on Paul Pogba’s slow start to life back at Manchester United, the player himself announced this week that he feels his game is being compromised by Jose Mourinho’s deployment of him at the base of midfield.
“I try to adapt. I am a player who would rather go forward. The coach gave me instructions, I try to follow them,” he told the Manchester Evening News.
“I have to retrieve balls and make defensive efforts. It cost me a bit to play differently, much like [Andrea] Pirlo. I have to play, be there to recover and play more for the team.”
While the Red Devils' decision to spend £89.5 million on the ex-Juventus star attracted criticism, the misuse of Pogba in United’s line-up has done little to dilute the belief that they overspent. And the 23-year-old’s public admission of a level of dissatisfaction will not help to ease the pressure as manager Mourinho looks to find the right balance.
In truth, Pogba has vocalised his frustrations at a time when his fortunes have seemingly been on the turn. Following a difficult first month which included three straight defeats that featured Pogba in three different roles, he has looked far more at home in the last two league games in a slightly higher starting position ahead of Ander Herrera’s deep-lying playmaker position.
It is certainly true that the Pogba who dominated matches for Juventus is still yet to appear in the red shirt, with chances to drive forward few and far between, but such performances don’t seem too far away on the evidence of his display in the 4-1 win over Leicester City and the ability to get into the box at will in the dominant 1-1 draw with Stoke City.
Add in a wonderful match-winning showing in France’s 1-0 victory over Netherlands on Monday, and even the concerns raised over his deployment by Didier Deschamps at Euro 2016 could be considered a distant memory. But with a trip to Liverpool on Monday leading off a key run which will also see United take on Fenerbahce, Chelsea and Manchester City, it is imperative that his upturn in form continues in the next couple of weeks.
Earlier in the campaign he was shuffled around as Mourinho looked to get the best out of him. Against City Pogba started in a withdrawn midfield role alongside Marouane Fellaini for a third straight game but a 2-0 half-time deficit forced the Portuguese into a change which saw United respond well with Herrera added to the base and Pogba given more licence. But when used as a number 10 against Feyenoord and as part of a three-man midfield with Fellaini and Wayne Rooney at Watford, Pogba still wasn’t at his best.
One thing that is very clear is that Mourinho must do more to get the best out of Pogba. Both in the hope of making United as good as they can be and in attempting to silence the critics, it is critical that they reap the greatest possible dividends from their massive investment. And fudging the issue will get them nowhere.
Pogba needs to feel the benefit of a system that is working across the board. Having a Herrera or a Michael Carrick feeding delicate balls into his path will be pointless if there is no energy in the final third to take defenders out of Pogba’s channel, hence why the exclusion of Rooney in recent weeks has seen an upturn in the Frenchman’s and United’s performances. Also, neither playmaker has the endeavour defensively to sufficiently absolve Pogba of extensive defensive strain.
He cannot be the only threat coming from deep, otherwise his qualities will be too easily stifled by canny opponents, and to that end Mourinho has to decide if Pogba needs a different midfield partner, a change of formation to lighten his defensive load, or simply something new on offer ahead of him in the forward department in order to open the kind of space in which he thrives in the final third.
Either way Mourinho is not hitting the spot at the moment, but he is not one to quickly back down to a player’s whims. Whether the controversial manager has the ability or the inclination to change things to benefit Pogba could well go a long way to deciding whether his first season at Old Trafford will be a success or a failure.