Back in the summer, when the Jose Mourinho–Paul Pogba feud was simmering rather than explosive, the Manchester United manager made a statement about Pogba’s triumphant World Cup campaign with France that reportedly set his star player off, to a point of no return as far as their relationship is concerned.
“It’s about him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition. I think that’s the point, about his performance level and his contribution to a winning team.”
Mourinho had also called Pogba’s performances during the knockout stages of the World Cup “absolutely brilliant”, something that got lost in the fallout to the rest of his comments. Clearly, the midfielder missed that bit, because he was allegedly upset that Mourinho wasn’t being congratulatory enough (despite the manager having texted him after France’s final win).
But even if Pogba chose to focus on what seemed like a negative pronouncement from his manager, perhaps he should have been paying better attention.
Last month, after United stumbled to a 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton at home, the Frenchman aired his complaints about his manager’s tactics to the media.
“When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack. That’s Old Trafford. We are here to attack. I think teams are scared when they see Man United attacking and attacking. That was our mistake today.”
Fair enough, Mourinho’s conservatism against even relatively smaller opposition can be baffling. But if Pogba thinks “attack attack attack” is the only way he can succeed, he learned nothing from his World Cup campaign.
France don’t attack, attack, attack. In fact, in the build-up to the tournament, manager Didier Deschamps was often criticised for setting up his side in such a pragmatic manner, with people saying the man who captained France to their 1998 World Cup win was holding the current side back with his tactics.
Of course, nobody would make that argument now.
Yet in three out of four knockout games, France had 40 per cent possession or less. Against the talented if perennially underachieving Argentina in the round of 16, Deschamps set his side up to play on the counter, and it worked brilliantly. Les Bleus had 40 per cent of the ball, and Pogba had the second-most touches of any France player in a 4-3 win.
It was a similar story against Belgium in the semi-final, where Deschamps’ side had 36 per cent of the possession, Pogba had the joint second-fewest touches among France’s outfield players, and his team won 1-0 thanks to a goal from a corner.
Sit off the ball, and win 1-0 from a set-piece goal – sounds like something straight from the Mourinho manual.
And of course, the final, where France had the ball 34 per cent of the play against Croatia, but Pogba had more touches than any of his team-mates, scored a goal, and led his side to a 4-2 victory.
In fact, only three times in seven games overall did France win the possession battle, and one of those came against Uruguay, who are equally a counter-attacking side by nature. Even Peru dominated the ball against France – another game in which Pogba had the most touches of the ball among his colleagues.
So Pogba, as Mourinho has recognised, can play in many different ways and still succeed, both for himself and for his team. He can be part of a counter-attacking set-up against a side like Belgium, be diligent defensively and see less of the ball, and still be a vital part of a win. He can be the hub of a counter-attacking performance, like he did against Argentina and Croatia. Or, he can dominate in a possession-heavy attack, as he did against Uruguay.
Maybe, instead of asking Pogba to inspire United to a comeback from 2-0 down, all Mourinho needs to do with the talismanic midfielder is show him the stats sheets from his World Cup games.
Because Pogba himself didn’t learn all the lessons he needed to, despite coming home with the trophy.