In The Pulpit: The Pogba Problem: should he change or should the team?

Opinion

Over the last three games, one of the major talking points at United has been the poor performances of Paul Pogba. He was poor against Spurs and was substituted in the second half. Mourinho then decided to drop him at home to Huddersfield. Against Newcastle, he was subbed again, although there was a suggestion he may have picked up an injury in the warm-up.

Pogba has managed to get criticised in these games for both his offensive and defensive contribution. Some have criticised him for his lack of end product. He hasn’t notched an assist for a month and hasn’t scored since November. Playing in the more withdrawn role he has found himself in at United, he struggles to link defence and attack and regularly ends up just launching sweeping balls across the field. This isn’t the player we were promised when he signed for a world record fee.

Others argue that for the position he currently plays in, his positional discipline needs to be better. He often strides forward to join the attack in an attempt to create chances for the forwards, which leaves a huge gap behind him. The opposition team can burst into this space, putting Nemanja Matic and the United defence under pressure.

I put this to you, reader: should Pogba be required to defend in the first place?

Over in Spain at Real Madrid, Ronaldo was never asked to track back. Instead, the team was constructed so that the Portuguese winger’s lack of defensive work rate didn’t harm the rest of the team. Why is Pogba not given this same treatment? Surely, the team should be built to get the best out of him? Play two midfielders alongside him to cover his forward runs. Don’t play a number 10 in front of him to give him space to move into and create. Allow him to flourish.

However, Mourinho is the manager and he has decided to play Pogba in the deeper role, presumably to keep four attackers on the pitch. If Jose feels that Pogba has the attributes to play in that position, is he not right to persist with this current plan? With enough training and match experience, the Frenchman might be able to adapt his game. There’s nothing wrong with coaches coaching their players, is there? Ultimately, this might benefit the team, especially if Mourinho can create a cohesive attacking unit.

Let’s look at a player who has gone through a similar transformation. In recent weeks, Mousa Dembele has been highlighted as one of the best all-round midfielders in the league. He has an almost unparalleled dribbling ability for a central midfielder. Combined with his supreme passing skill and upper body strength, he is a formidable midfielder.

Dembele arrived in England as a centre-forward. While playing for Mark Hughes’ Fulham, Dembele dropped back and was converted into the central midfielder we know today. With enough work and commitment, maybe Pogba will be able to adapt his game and be as effective in this deeper role as Mousa Dembele is for Spurs.

But will Pogba be willing to go through this process? He is clearly intelligent enough to pick up new skills and listen to his manager’s instructions. But it’s going against everything he’s done in his career so far. Previously he has been successful by playing instinctively, by being free. Now he is being told to quash that desire. It might be a difficult process for him and one he may feel comprises his overall game.

Personally, I think that it would be worth adapting the team to suit Pogba, rather than attempt to reinvent his role. I also think he is by far and away our best player and it would be worth reconstructing the side to aim to get the best out of him. It seems quite a simple thing to do as well, especially considering that Herrera and McTominay both look able to provide that extra level of cover that would be required once Pogba vacated the middle of the field.

However, I wouldn’t be completely against Pogba becoming an all-action midfielder in the mould of Dembele. He certainly has the requisite level of skill to pull that role off and it would allow Jose to keep four attackers upfield. I suppose that it’ll come down to time. If he can change quickly enough that the team’s overall performances improve, it will be worth it. But at the moment, it’s not working.

What if it never works? What if, like several times before, Mourinho falls out with a key player because he won’t follow his instructions? In a fight between Jose and Pogba, who does the club side with?

Pogba’s commercial might could make them side with him. Pogba is the ultimate modern footballer, simultaneously brilliant on the field and for the club’s bank balance. Commercially, he must be one of the top players in the world, only behind the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. The United board crave this sort of player. Not only that, he represents the very best of United’s famed academy and is a fan favourite. Plus, even a money grabbing executive can see he’s a very good footballer. The board will always be able to find another good manager. There aren’t many Paul Pogbas.

On the other hand, Mourinho is one of the world’s most successful footballer managers. He has also inherited a side that finished 7th, 4th and 5th before his arrival and won three trophies in his first season. He also looks certain to get them into the Champions League again this year. For the first time since Ferguson retired, the club has been improving year on year and surely next season they will be challenging for a title? Maybe it would be better to stick with someone who almost guarantees success, rather than keep an overly disruptive player, no matter how shareable he is.

At this point, I honestly can’t decide which side the board would take. I’m not even that sure who the fans would want to stay. Some think Pogba is the answer to United’s problems and their future, others find him insufferable. Some see Mourinho as the club’s saviour while others see him as pure poison.

If there is a battle between Mourinho and Pogba, it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. We’ll also find out what matters most to the board and the fanbase at large. I can only hope that whatever happens, we start to see the best of Paul Pogba. He is clearly the best player to play for the club since Ronaldo left and it would be a disaster if he went before fulfilling his potential. Here’s hoping he and the manager can sort this all out before it gets nasty.

About the Author

Bob Priestley
Manchester United fan and writer of 'entertaining articles' or 'a collection of words' depending on who you listen to