The stage is set for Paul Pogba.
Fresh off a World Cup triumph where his brilliant displays in midfield propelled France to the title, the 25-year-old can return to the Premier League with the ultimate clapback to any of his critics: I just won the World Cup.
And the nature of his performances for France – controlled, disciplined play at the heart of a counter-attacking team – should have signalled he’s finally ready to adapt to the role Jose Mourinho has in mind for him at United, where the manager has been looking for Pogba to produce his best under that directive for two seasons.
In that light, Mourinho’s comments in an interview with ESPN this week can only be viewed as perplexing.
“I don’t think it’s about us getting the best out of him,. It’s about him giving the best he has to give.”
Mourinho went on to say that the World Cup had been the perfect environment for Pogba, that playing for your country instills a greater sense of commitment, and that a summer tournament where players are cosseted in team camps and can focus on football for a month, far different from the grind of a league season and all the distractions available then – all valid points.
And in fairness to Mourinho, the Portuguese did praise his midfielder when doing punditry during the tournament, and said Pogba had been “absolutely brilliant” last week.
But the 25-year-old midfielder would be forgiven for having seen these comments and wondered what more he has to do to impress his manager.
If Mourinho wanted to challenge Pogba, there were better ways of going about it. All the manager had to do was raise the bar in a positive way, for example by saying the Frenchman’s brilliance at the World Cup showed he has the talent to lead Manchester United to Premier League or Champions League glory.
Pogba surely already knows that’s the expectation of him now that he’s led his country to a World Cup trophy, and hearing his manager express a belief that he could do it would have motivated him.
Mourinho's ESPN interview was intended to be a challenge to Pogba and his entourage. He feels that Pogba is too distracted by commercial aspects #mulive [duncan castles]— utdreport (@utdreport) July 25, 2018
And if the manager’s words weren’t enough to annoy Pogba, club legend Paul Scholes was there to drive the point home, saying his successor as United’s domineering midfielder is a player from whom “you get a performance out of every three to four games” and that Pogba “needs to use his brain a little bit more to become a top footballer” in an interview with beIN SPORTS.
Scholes is a pundit, paid to offer his views, and he has no reason to mince words. He isn’t tasked with worrying about how his words will affect Pogba. Nonetheless, the former Juventus man will no doubt bristle at the lack of support he’s getting from his club – and Scholes, as a former player and club legend, counts as part of the institution that is Manchester United.
Where, for example, have the defences to Graeme Souness’ constant, over-the-top, and largely unwarranted criticism for Pogba been? Imagine a former Liverpool player being that vicious about a United man during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, and the response they’d get from the Scot – without the requisite of winning a World Cup as vindication.
Pogba is almost certainly ignoring Souness and any other detractors at the moment, but it shouldn’t fall upon United fans on Twitter to defend him.
That’s Mourinho’s job. He’s done it before, responding on Pogba’s behalf – and his own – to criticism from people like Scholes and Gary Neville, another former United star, but for a man who styles himself as a father-figure manager, not defending his player when the perfect opportunity presented itself is an oversight.
In fact, the classic Ferguson move would have been not only to launch a verbal assault at Souness and other critics, but to have a reward waiting for Pogba when he returned. United’s club captain, Michael Carrick, retired at the end of last season, and having just won the World Cup, Pogba is ready to wear the armband.
1 - Paul Pogba 🇫🇷 among the French players in the World Cup 2018 🏆 (min. 2 games):— OptaJean ⭐⭐ (@OptaJean) July 27, 2018
69 touches per game - 1st
19 passes in the last third per game - 1st
1.5 chances created per game - 1st
18 duels per game - 1st
Antonio Valencia could still be the official club captain, as the senior man, but thrusting that responsibility on Pogba would have been the best way to challenge him.
Instead, all Mourinho is doing is antagonising his best player even more.
If Manchester United are aiming to push Paul Pogba out the door, they’re following the plan perfectly.
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