It was another one of those Mourinho epics this summer, which again seemed to be endless as he compulsively chased the signature of French International, Paul Pogba for his new club Manchester United. The MUST have player finally arrived and United paid in the process a record breaking fee with an additional tumultuous commission to the relevant agent. The latter at one point the most contentious part of securing Pogba’s services. So it was a world record by any measure and saw the return of a player that had come through United's academy and then sought a move to the Italian club Juventus. Now after re-joining The Reds for £89m the same player now seems the same misfit at Old Trafford - as he was under Sir Alex Ferguson – when only delivering three goals over a season and a half.
With Mourinho at the helm this talented player from Lagny-sur-Marne still seems far from the force he was at Juventus for the past four seasons. Or the man who started much of what happened in the Italian team over recent seasons. Ably supported obviously by a cast of international stars playing around him. Not unlike his galloping runs that exemplified most of what was good about France during EURO 2016 only a few months ago that saw the host nation reach the final. But better players around you obviously make you play better and Pogba is finding his work at Old Trafford somewhat less straight forward than perhaps it might have been at a Real Madrid. For a player who with Juventus was a key force in reaching the Champions League final two seasons ago in Berlin where he lost to Barcelona. The summer defeat to Portugal in Paris adding to that misery as France had looked racing certainties to win the trophy on home soil.
These days at United that same rampaging Paul Pogba has faded and started to resemble what Eric Cantona once attributed to fellow countryman, Didier Deschamps, being a “water carrier”. His manager adding to the background noise complaining of his lack of attacking flair. Albeit some of that unfair as in the match against Liverpool in particular that saw the United team play with such a strait jacket even Zidane would have struggled to show any flair. Although Deschamps was more brawn and industry than silken skills, Pogba has a higher measure of both. And to see his role reduced to plugging holes in the middle of the park in Mourinho’s stifling tactics, raises the question of why buy him in the first place. But is not unusual for The Special One who has a history of struggling with talented players and found an ageing Inter Milan his ideal type of team. Taking them to the Champions League title in 2010 playing a very physical and oppressive style against Bayern Munich in Madrid. The same systems paying dividend against Guardiola’s Barcelona en route to that 2010 victory.
Then at Real Madrid the same man who had played so well for him in Italy was surplus to requirements and so Wesley Sneijder moved on to Turkey. At Chelsea it was Juan Mata that made way for other selections. Yet there is some merit to the analysis that the graceful athleticism of Pogba has been much diluted at United. And whether it is by managerial design, team formation or issues on the player’s side is now becoming a topic of media conjecture. No doubt though the rigid systems so beloved by Mourinho also plays a role, as was seen at Anfield in that meeting with Liverpool. A match that oozed promise but became a violent status quo from the start with neither side able to play anything resembling attacking football. With United parking the bus on three halfway line as is the Special One’s want. Again the player who had romped the stadia of France over the summer was left chasing shadows under a manager whose more rent record saw failure at Chelsea last season, and left Real Madrid without fulfilling the touted promise of a Champions League title. But then again Mourinho has form in this regard in more recent times.
However, as attack is the best from of defence Mourinho felt Liverpool deserved more criticism than United for a 'cautious' approach and suggested the inclusion of Emre Can alongside Jordan Henderson stifled Pogba.
"You know, I think like everybody else the defensive side of the game I think that the team was perfect," Mourinho said at his post-match press conference. "Even the goalkeeper was on holiday for 90 minutes but he had two big saves to do and he did.
"When we recovered the ball I was expecting the team to be more dangerous, in spite of having a couple of very important chances, but Liverpool did well too, they are a very good team. You like to say they are the last wonder of the world in attacking football, but they are also a team that defends and thinks defensively.
"And I think the fact they played Can and Henderson together controlled the position where Paul should be more in control because we thought they were going to play with only one player there but they played with two."
In statistical terms Manchester United had a 35% possession and with Pogba playing higher up the pitch, the world’s most expensive player attempted just 38 passes. Pogba also passed the ball fewer times than the Liverpool goalkeeper at Anfield. His woeful pass completion rate of 71.1% was worse than every single player on the pitch barring Daley Blind and Roberto Firmino. Also he had just 63 touches of the ball with James Milner having 74. Pogba’s average for the season is 89. Then he had one shot on target in his last two Premier League games. He then created one chance against Liverpool – though it was the header that should have been scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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