When Florian Lejeune won the header that led to Newcastle United’s winner last Sunday, it was Manchester United’s recent issues in microcosm form. Nemanja Matic barely moved as the centre-back beat him to the ball while Paul Pogba seemed lost in no-man’s land, back-pedaling and then halting as he realised his moment to challenge had gone.
The two midfielders have both lost form to a desperate extent of late, and Jose Mourinho pulled no punches in blaming the pair after the game.
“It’s really far from the goal, the players know the positions they have to be in but we miss the challenge in the air,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I remember clearly the Newcastle player jumping and two of my players looking at him and staying on the floor so the guy won the ball in the air. I won’t analyse players individually... You know who lost the challenge in the air.”
Being an £89.5 million addition, it is Pogba who has drawn the most attention with his slump over the last month, and those close to the club suggest that his response has been to tell Mourinho he would rather play in a formation which suits his own game. The 4-2-3-1 the manager has favoured has added the kind of increased defensive responsibility to Pogba’s game that he was not forced to endure in Juventus’ 3-5-2 which allowed for greater midfield expression.
The two have clearly not been on the same wavelength of late, with Pogba being withdrawn early twice and left on the bench once in United’s last three fixtures. Indeed, he was given the hook immediately after contributing to Newcastle’s goal at the weekend.
Something has changed in the relationship between the two. Until a couple of weeks ago, Pogba was never removed for tactical reasons. Since then, 20-year-old Scott McTominay has been selected ahead of him and the ageing Michael Carrick given his first league action of the season with United chasing the game.
Mourinho protested last season that Pogba, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was not an untouchable member of his squad. “Nobody is untouchable now,” he said. “Untouchable in our team I think has to be the spirit, the commitment, the pride, the commitment to the club, the respect to the fans. That has to be untouchable, but not players.”
But having behaved as though the opposite was true for 18 months, he has now resorted to undermining his midfielder at every turn. If Pogba has an issue with playing in a two-man midfield and would rather be on the left in a 4-3-3, then why not voice his concerns sooner since he has been playing in the same position for most of his time under Mourinho? It feels like there is more to the current issue.
The manager has few compelling options other than to keep Pogba where he is for now. By giving way to Pogba and adding an extra midfielder he would be promoting at least one of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick, the former having underwhelmed this season and the latter no longer possessing the mobility needed each week in the United engine room.
And that is not to mention the increased headache that leaving out yet another of the extra forward stocks could cause Mourinho. Since the arrival of Alexis Sanchez in January, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial have all endured varying spells on the substitutes’ bench as the manager has looked to find the right balance.
If Mourinho were to change things around to placate the player he could be seen to be favouring one player without it necessarily being for the wider benefit of the team. And that can cause all sorts of problems for a manager, as Dr David Cliff, a management and personal development expert and the 2017 Entrepreneur’s Forum Awards Mentor of the Year, explains to Goal.
“As a leader you want to get the best out of them without pandering to them in ways that would actually result in allegations of favouritism or selective management styles by other players. Managers have a very difficult balancing act,” Dr Cliff said.
“The most talented individuals are most often the highest-maintenance items because they know they can dictate terms with far greater deftness than lesser-able individuals. There is a real danger sometimes of managers pandering to egos, and when we’re talking about team performance you just have to get the job done but we’ve also got to recognise there will be key players who may have particular needs that they want sensitivity to if they’re going to be part of that process.”
It seems likely that there will come a time when Mourinho has sufficient options in midfield to give far greater consideration to playing Pogba on the left of a fluid 4-3-3 similar to the one he used at Everton on New Year’s Day following previous criticism from club legend Paul Scholes.
But in the meantime, he may have some damage control to carry out in order to keep Pogba happy and also get the team functioning in the style he desires while also keeping the heat off his own position. If not handled carefully, it could well become the chapter which defines his Manchester United reign, as Dr Cliff identifies.
“Football managers are leaders like anyone else, but they are leaders in an industry which has eye-watering amounts of cash,” adds Dr Cliff. “These are businesses on a gargantuan scale, yet there is often conspicuous little management and leadership development going on.
“When something goes wrong it is quite the natural defence mechanism of the psyche to have a projective figure on which one can hang the blame, and in modern football that is increasingly becoming the manager. Not the board, not the chairman, not the chief-executive and not the star players.
“I suspect modern football managers have a far greater challenge than they had before, which means they’ve got to improve their management skills. It’s not just about being a great team coach, it’s about understanding and constantly developing the true nature of leadership while at the same time understanding the fact that one needs to get the best out of these expensive acquisitions. So there has to be a bit of give-and-take going on.”
Something needs to give. Right now it feels like Mourinho is getting the best out of neither Pogba nor the team, while the player himself has clearly dropped his level of late. The quicker the pair of them find a way to get the midfielder back to his near-untouchable form, the better for all concerned.