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.
Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken publicly for the first time since undergoing emergency brain surgery in May.
The former Manchester United manager, who has been recovering at home for the past two months, has thanked medical staff in a video message released by the club.
The 76-year-old has also revealed that he intends to be back at Old Trafford to watch United in the coming season.
Ferguson said: “Hello. Just a quick message first of all to thank the medical staff at Macclesfield, Salford Royal and Alexandra hospitals.
“Believe me, without those people, who gave me such great care, I would not be sitting here today. So, thank you from me and my family. Thank you very much.
“It has made me feel so humble, as have all the messages I have had from all over the world, wishing me the best, and the good wishes to resonate very strongly with me. So thank you for that support you have given me.
“And lastly, I will be back later in the season to watch the team. In the meantime, all the best to Jose and the players. Thank you very much.”
On Saturday 5 May, the football world was rocked by the news that Sir Alex Ferguson had undergone surgery for a brain haemorrhage.— Manchester United (@ManUtd) 26 July 2018
Since then, the most successful manager in English football history has battled in a way only he knows how.
Today, we bring you a special message. pic.twitter.com/NgGejgM46e
Ferguson, Britain’s most successful football manager, received well wishes from around the sporting world after suffering a brain haemorrhage and being rushed into hospital. He spent four days in intensive care.
The Scot looked well as he spoke directly to camera during the video message, which was tweeted by the club.
Ferguson, who retired in 2013, won 38 trophies during a 26-year spell in charge of United, including 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues. Prior to that he won 11 trophies with Aberdeen.
The pair played second-fiddle to the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez for much of last season, with Martial missing out on a place in France’s successful World Cup campaign as a result.
Rashford went to Russia with England and has played plenty of football under Jose Mourinho, although the 20-year-old failed to impress his boss when given the chance to make a mark late on in the campaign.
With minutes key to his continued improvement, Rashford needs to remain central to Mourinho’s plans, while Martial continues to be linked with a move away from Old Trafford.
The winger left United’s pre-season tour of the United States earlier this week with Mourinho confirming he left to be present at the birth of his child.
Berbatov, who starred up front for the Red Devils between 2008 and 2012, wants to see more from the United youngsters moving forward.
“I think Rashford needs more playing time so he can develop fully because he has great abilities, for me alongside Martial these two can be unbelievable,” he said.
“They are young, they enjoy the game and because of their youth they see the game differently to other players.”
United’s pre-season tour has been something of a damp squib thus far, with three draws from their three games – culminating in a penalty shoot-out win over AC Milan on Wednesday.
There are a number of players missing, those who played in the World Cup and injured skipper Antonio Valencia, but Berbatov is hoping to see Rashford and Martial play alongside one another at some point.
“Some people say they cannot play at the same time but I disagree,” added the 37-year-old Bulgarian, who bagged 56 goals in 149 appearances for the club.
“They don’t over-think things, they just go and play and enjoy the game as much as they can – they are quick, strong, have great technical ability and they can score goals.
“So I hope that more time is given to Martial and Rashford which I think will be beneficial to the whole team and to them as well obviously.”