Jose Mourinho heading down familiar path with Paul Pogba


Jose Mourinho, right, talks to Paul Pogba during the Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Sevilla FC and Manchester United at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (Miguel Morenatti/AP)

Paul Pogba has been poor. There’s no debating that. He has failed to score since a Nov. 18 home fixture against Newcastle United, and hasn’t provided an assist in his last five games.

The £89-million man was replaced by Juan Mata in the 63rd minute of Manchester United’s match against Tottenham, and as rumours of a rift between Pogba and Jose Mourinho grew, the manager chose to address them ahead of a FA Cup fifth-round clash against Huddersfield Town.

“I think you are nice with your words,” Mourinho retorted after the reporter referred to the rumours as speculation. “Because, when you say a lot of speculation, you should say a lot of lies. I accept — and I can speak on behalf of Paul without any problem — and Paul accepts that he’s not been playing well, but that’s all.”

Is that all, though?

Since that press conference, Pogba reportedly fell ill and so was only used as a substitute against Huddersfield, returned to health but was substituted once again against Newcastle away from home, and was left out of the starting lineup for United’s crucial Champions League first-leg match against Sevilla in Spain.

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The match against Newcastle is notable, as the midfielder was conspicuous only in his anonymity, and was substituted for elder statesman Michael Carrick immediately after Matt Ritchie scored what would go on to be the winner for the Magpies. Pogba cut a sombre figure on the bench, either extremely disappointed in himself or the decision to take him off.

When he was named as a substitute for the match against Sevilla, it was arguable that Mourinho was saving him for the match against Chelsea at the weekend. The fact Ander Herrera needed to be replaced due to injury after just 17 minutes and Pogba was the man Mourinho turned to for 75-plus minutes of action, though, suggests a different tale.

Pogba’s cryptic caption for his Instagram post after finding out he would come off the bench does nothing to quell the storyline, either.

God’s plan

A post shared by Paul Labile Pogba (@paulpogba) on

The truth of the matter is, Mourinho’s struggles to integrate naturally attacking players in the recent past leaves a lot to be desired.

While at Chelsea, Kevin De Bruyne — arguably the best player in the Premier League right now — could only manage three league appearances in his second and final season with the London club. He was signed in the January transfer window of 2012 but was on loan at Werder Bremen and only had to contend with Mourinho in the 2013-14 season.

According to a story in The Metro, Mourinho pointed out exactly where the Belgian was struggling in a meeting and used statistics based off a miniscule sample size to break things down.

“I just said I can play,” De Bruyne revealed. “I have no statistics — two games — what do you want me to do? I had a feeling I wasn’t even going to play. Even if he said you’re going to play more games, from two games I was maybe going to go to five. It was, for me, a good decision to leave.”

De Bruyne found form almost immediately upon signing with Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, and the world has become his oyster since signing for Manchester City for a then club-record fee of £55 million in August of 2015. He is far and away the league leader in assists this season with 14 and has seven goals to his name as well.

Mohamed Salah was signed by Chelsea in the January transfer window of 2014, and received a bit of a longer leash than De Bruyne. Salah was given six starts and four substitute appearances over the remainder of the 2013-14 season, scoring twice and providing one assist.

His opportunities diminished in Chelsea’s title-winning season, coming on as a substitute just three times before being loaned out to Fiorentina.

He made 10 starts in Serie A along with six substitute appearances, and finished with six goals and six assists to his name. He then went to Roma and had a successful couple of seasons before Liverpool came calling.

“Three years ago, I didn’t play much,” Salah said to FourFourTwo magazine earlier this season. “But, since day one back in England, I wanted to show what I can do. I think I’m doing well.”

The Egyptian is certainly humble. He has set the Premier League alight with his quick feet and creativity, and is second in scoring this season, just one behind Harry Kane’s goal tally with 22. Add the seven assists he’s racked up, and he’s right in the mix along with De Bruyne for the coveted PFA Player of the Year award.

Both De Bruyne and Salah faced similar problems. Mourinho didn’t see a consistent fit in the starting XI for either with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian at his disposal, not with his generally pragmatic approach anyway. Of course, he hardly had to validate his decisions in a season where Chelsea only lost three league games.

Things fell apart quickly for Mourinho the very next season, with players leading a revolt against the Portuguese manager until the club was left with no choice but to fire him. Perhaps things may have been different if the players had more opportunities to express themselves.

Finally, Henrikh Mkhitaryan provides the most recent example of a player who became a shadow of himself under the now 55-year-old Mourinho. Unlike De Bruyne and Salah, the Armenian came over to Manchester United with an established reputation from the Bundesliga as one of the best table setters in the world.

He was coming off a 2016-17 campaign in which he scored 21 goals and provided 26 assists in 56 games but could hardly find a place in the side in his first season under Mourinho as he wanted more out of the midfield maestro defensively.

Mkhitaryan eventually worked his way into the side, and showed glimpses of the player he was in Germany. That same player came out raring to go at the start of the 2017-18 season, accumulating five assists in his first five league games to tie a 23-year-old Premier League record as United stormed out of the gate.

As the more difficult games came knocking on the door, Mourinho turned to his tried and tested tradition of parking the bus. The Armenian fell out of form and out of favour, and was swapped for Alexis Sanchez in January. Mkhitaryan racked up three assists in his first start for the Gunners, and now has four assists in four appearances.

“Every offensive player wants to play offensive football,” Mkhitaryan told the media after Manchester United drew 0-0 with Sevilla. “For me as well, I love to play offensive football, it’s not easy to defend all the time. It’s necessary to do the best for the team, but in this case, when Arsenal are playing offensive football, I’m trying to give everything to the team.”

These are telling comments that are relatable to Pogba’s current situation. The Frenchman has long been considered a player who likes to venture forward with his long strides and impose his will with his creativity.

United’s match against Everton on New Year’s Day was the biggest evidence of this, as after an insipid first half display, Mourinho moved Pogba up the pitch. He dazzled all who were watching with two assists and showcases of sublime skill, teasing what’s possible when he’s played in a position he prefers.

As Mkhitaryan seems to suggest, perhaps the freedom to do more offensively could subliminally motivate Pogba to do more defensively.

Instead, he has been repeatedly asked to pair with Nemanja Matic in a primarily defensive role and hold the fort while the likes of Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku venture forward.

As noble as Mourinho’s attempts are to get anyone and everyone to sacrifice for the team, there is also something to be said for keeping your players happy and being patient with them through difficult periods rather than abandoning them. Pogba is a square peg being asked to fit in a round hole and so the blame cannot only be his.

The decisions to loan out and eventually sell De Bruyne and Salah didn’t come with major scrutiny at the time because they hadn’t built an elite status for themselves yet.

Like Mkhitaryan, though, Pogba returned to Manchester United with an already established reputation after an excellent spell with Juventus. Unlike years past where Mourinho has only stayed at clubs for roughly three years and has been able to hold a short-term view, he has recently signed an extension to remain at the club until at least 2020.

There is no turning back for the self proclaimed ‘Special One.’

Every decision Mourinho makes from here with regards to his star Frenchman will only be magnified on a larger scale. The next one comes on Sunday, when United face a titanic clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford.

Pogba’s status for that match will say a lot about where the two currently stand, and if he’s left out of the starting lineup in a top-four clash just days after choosing not to start him in a Champions League fixture, the 24-year-old will certainly be one step closer to the exit.


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