Out-of-form Pogba under scrutiny at Man United
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Buried in his bulky, hooded Manchester United jacket, Paul Pogba slumped in a seat in the dugout and stared into space with a blank look on his face.
His team was 1-0 down to relegation-threatened Newcastle in the English Premier League and heading for a second loss in three games. United needed a savior from somewhere but that wasn’t going to be Pogba, its record signing and most recognizable player.
That’s because Pogba had been substituted after 66 minutes. The previous match, he was dropped from the starting lineup. The match before that, against Tottenham at Wembley Stadium, he’d lasted only 62 minutes before being taken off soon after receiving stern words on the touchline by manager Jose Mourinho.
The France midfielder is experiencing the toughest period of his second coming at United, with question marks over his role in the team and his on-field discipline.
Moving for a then-world-record fee of 105 million euros (then $116 million) from Juventus in August 2016 has guaranteed that Pogba will never escape scrutiny during his time at Old Trafford.
And the spotlight is on him more than ever at present.
“In the last couple of matches, he didn’t play well,” Mourinho said on Friday. “Period. End of story.”
Except it won’t be. Not with Pogba in this kind of form.
Mourinho was in spiky mood at his news conference ahead of United’s FA Cup fifth-round match against Huddersfield on Saturday, angry at having to respond to speculation — or “lies,” as he preferred to call it — that his relationship with Pogba had soured and that the pair do not communicate.
Other reports said Pogba was irritated at having to play in a deeper position in midfield.
All false, according to Mourinho.
“Now, it’s my problem and Paul’s problem to deal with it and try to improve his performance level,” Mourinho said. “You don’t need to be a liar.”
Pogba’s position in United’s lineup has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks, even more so since Alexis Sanchez joined the club last month in a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan to give Mourinho a very different type of attacking option.
It is widely accepted that Pogba is at his best when he plays on the left of a midfield three, as he did to great effect during his time at Juventus. It gives him less defensively responsibility, compared to being in a midfield two, therefore allowing him to roam and make more of his trademark attacking surges.
He started this season playing alongside Nemanja Matic in a central-midfield two, and produced impressive performances — particularly late in games when Marouane Fellaini came on as a substitute to give United extra protection in midfield.
“Just let the horses run freely,” was Mourinho’s assessment after United scored three late goals on the break — one coming from Pogba — in a 4-0 win at Swansea in August in the Premier League.
Pogba was out for two months from mid-September with a hamstring injury, then served a three-match ban after getting a red card against Arsenal on Dec. 2 on his fifth game back in the team.
“He was out for a long, long time,” Mourinho said on Friday, “and in this moment, he is not playing well. Period. And the team needs him at a good level, and when he is not a good level the team is not as good as when he plays phenomenal.”
Pogba’s most recent two starts have been the most concerning.
Against Tottenham, where he again started in a central-midfield two, he was tactically indisciplined and lacked focus. He was regularly seen wandering around and vacating the central areas, leaving Matic swamped and exposed. It came as no surprise when he was substituted early, failing to finish a Premier League game he started for only the fourth time since rejoining United.
Against Newcastle on Sunday, Pogba didn’t look fit — he was seen grimacing during the warmup — and was taken off by Mourinho soon after failing to react in the buildup to Newcastle’s winning goal, scored by Matt Ritchie. Mourinho said it was a tactical decision and Pogba wasn’t injured.
Pogba again appeared to be playing in a midfield two, though Mourinho insisted on Friday the Frenchman was playing on the left of a midfield three in that game, contrary to what pundits thought.
For a player of his athleticism, mobility and ability — not to mention price tag — it seems strange that Pogba can perform only one specific role on the field.
“If you are going to play in midfield, you should be able to play in a two or a three,” former United captain Roy Keane said about Pogba, in his role as a TV pundit.
Mourinho said Pogba will play against Huddersfield for what could prove to be an intriguing test of character for a player in the spotlight.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80