Jose Mourinho started life as manager of Manchester United with the problem of what to do with an ineffective Wayne Rooney hanging over his head.
He dealt with it in time by relegating the club captain to the bench. Rooney’s performance levels were so bad United fans would have liked to see him dropped weeks earlier, but Mourinho kept him in the team, giving him just enough rope.
With one major selection issue just resolved another similar situation has cropped up: what does Mourinho do with world-record signing Paul Pogba?
The Frenchman was deployed in a number ten role at Anfield, the closest man to an ageing Zlatan Ibrahimovic but failed to get close enough to support the striker. Nor did he make any runs beyond the big Swede, leaving the Liverpool back four to enjoy a comfortable night.
Pogba defenders will argue that he’s not a natural number ten, and on the evidence of Monday night they’d be right. So, what is his best position then?
Central midfield is the obvious answer. However, even at this early stage of his second spell at United there are doubts over his ability to control games in the Premier League from the middle of the park. In fact, in some matches playing Pogba centrally has hindered United due to his habit of drifting ahead of the ball. When the France international is played within the two in Mourinho’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation his partner is often left completely abandoned.
The Portuguese favouring Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, two of United’s best performers on the night, over the Frenchman, in what is seen as his natural position, shows a lack of trust/faith in the world’s most expensive footballer.
Fellaini and Herrera did exactly what was asked of them on the night: disrupted Liverpool’s patterns of play and used the ball constructively when possible. If the Special One does not think his star player is capable of that in big games, like the one at Anfield on Monday night, he may have another Rooney-sized problem on his hands.
Pogba will play centrally against some of the league’s lesser teams and put on a show, like he did on his debut against Southampton. But, if he can’t be trusted to perform in the middle of the park against opposition of real quality and he continues to be as inept in the hole as he was against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool where do United get their £89 million’s worth? Shirt sales and advertising maybe, but United’s fans would much rather see his value on the pitch.
Former Chelsea and Scotland winger Pat Nevin made an interesting point during his slot on Newstalk’s Off The Ball last week. He questioned the quality of Pogba’s touch on the ball. He suggested that £89 million does not necessarily buy a good first touch and that the Frenchman often fails to control the ball properly but manages to retrieve possession using his power and pace instead.
This is not something I’d ever associated with Pogba but after hearing it suggested once and looking out for it on Monday night I’m inclined to agree with Nevin.
Once Pogba gets the ball out of his feet running at players he can be unstoppable, but in tight areas with the ball played at pace it does tend to bounce off him far more than it should.
Can Mourinho get the best out of United’s prodigal son or will Pogba just up his performance levels significantly in the near future?
If United are to mount what is already looking like an unlikely title challenge one of these scenarios has to happen.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena