José Mourinho continues bizarre and divisive power-play over Paul Pogba
Well, we got there in the end. Grudgingly, belatedly and against the manager’s better judgment. But with 17 minutes gone in this Champions League first leg, on a breezy, boisterous night in Seville, José Mourinho found himself forced by circumstance and bad luck into playing his most talented midfielder in his favourite position.
It is, of course, important not to be drawn too deeply into another Mourinho psychodrama. On a scale of one to Ramos the current half-glimpsed friction with Paul Pogba is hardly likely to rate a top-10 mention in the all-time annals of toxic José-dom.
Plus, Mourinho was correct to suggest after this 0-0 draw that the return leg at Old Trafford will be an entirely different occasion; and that this was a good result, albeit on the back of another choked and sputtering performance as United were pushed back repeatedly by an increasingly assertive Sevilla team.
But something odd is clearly stirring here, a friction between manager and star player that seems to reflect Mourinho’s own wider struggle at United, a club where the basic idea of what football is supposed to look like has always seemed an odd fit with the manager’s own furiously guarded, cussedly Mourinho-shaped notion of how to win.
On a micro level it still isn’t clear exactly why Pogba-Mourinho should have hit such a pronounced patch of turbulence. Pogba isn’t a selfish player, or an ingénu, or a footballer who lacks the kind of qualities Mourinho admires. And yet here we are all the same, being treated over two puzzling days in Seville to a bizarre and divisive pre-match power-play.
At his press conference Mourinho had spoken in weird gnomic riddles about Pogba’s status and availability, before opening up the back-end of training to the public eye. His intentions only became clear when his startling XI landed 24 hours later with no Pogba to be seen. It turned out what Mourinho had been saying was, "Look, this player is fit. Whatever passed between us in the last week, it’s not me or you. It’s him. And just to be clear, the manager picks the team round here."
At the end of which it is tempting to wonder in which parallel universe of José-shaped egomania this is a fight worth picking. Mourinho is still trying to build a champion team on the hoof, to conjure another rising red tide out of the last few years of retrenchment.
Quite how Pogba could be an obstacle, or a bad fit or an odd man in these circumstances is far from clear. The presence of Paul Pogba on the playing staff: this is not your problem.
The question instead is how to get the most from a player with the ability to make any kind of pass, and also to drive through the clinches and physically dominate an opposition. The best thing about Pogba is just that he so obviously loves playing, lifting his team-mates with his presence, and looking so often like a man who is basically having a ball out there.
Except, of course, when he’s not. In Seville it was an oddly chastened Pogba who came striding on to the pitch after Ander Herrera left the field early on. Pogba took up a position on the left of the midfield three, the role, quite frankly, he should have had from the start, nailed right through the season’s entire block of United team sheets.
His first touch was a glossily-executed little flick inside. He ferreted gamely, keeping his position and battling hard as Sevilla found their own midfield rhythm. But this was a United team once again struggling to move through the gears, required instead to cover and block and sit deep against opponents they might have expected to stretch a bit more.
Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Herrera had lined up in a deep three-man midfield block. McTominay in particular was given a heavy load, asked to vindicate his manager’s selection in difficult circumstances. And McTominay did play well here, even if once again it was hard to avoid the feeling of a team juddering and chafing against its own constraints.
The deeper fascination of Mourinho at United has always been that basic question of style and personality, whether Mourinho can lose himself in something bigger, can allow himself to produce a United team of genuine elan rather than another corrosive Mourinho winning machine.
It is struggle that seems to be embodied right now in Pogba; a brilliant puzzle of a player, and one United would surely be better served trying to solve rather than unsettle.