The start to Manchester United’s season has been one of peaks and troughs. Defeats to Brighton and Tottenham marked the nadir for the Red Devils, but they soon bounced back with hard-earned wins at Burnley and Watford. The past week has emphasised the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the club. An impressive opening win in Switzerland against Young Boys was followed by an insipid draw against Wolves, where they were outfought and outthought on their own pitch. However, it is the Carabao Cup exit to Championship side Derby County which has ignited the latest news cycle—largely by a man who did not feature in the tie..
Paul Pogba openly criticised his team’s tactics against Wolves, stating that an all-out attack would bring more consistency to the team and allow them to make good on their natural talents. That view led to a reprimand from his manager, Jose Mourinho, and the World Cup winner found himself stripped of the vice-captaincy. I’m sure he’ll sleep soundly nevertheless.
The situation was exacerbated further when Pogba, resplendent in an all-white tracksuit, appeared to leave his seat in the stands before the penalties against Derby County and then sent an Instagram picture of himself accompanied by a strange looking ‘crazy face’ emoji. The implication being that he was busy fuelling his ego while his teammates were fighting to save the match.
The following day, Sky Sports cameras recorded a supposed bust-up between manager and player at the club’s training ground. In the footage, Pogba appears to walk past Mourinho before turning around sharply as if stung by a comment. They spoke for a few seconds before Mourinho calls over the Press Officer and asks ‘What time did Paul post that photo on Instagram?’ The exchange has been described as ‘frosty’.
This is an age where social media carries its own dangers. When Luis Suarez was banned at the start of the 2013-14 season for biting the arm of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, the Premier League took the unusual step of including an extra game to the sentence because the incident had been discussed on Twitter – the rationale being that it brought the game into further disrepute to another media. Pogba seems to have done far less other than be vocal about United’s failings as a team and, possibly, by deliberately engineering what would be the second move away from Old Trafford.
Mourinho denies that there is a spat between the two, stating “The only truth is that I made the decision of Paul not to be the second captain any more but no fall-out, no problems at all.” Others disagree. On Sky Sports’ show, The Debate Danny Murphy pointed out that he didn’t always get on with his managers (presumably Rafa Benitez, who sold him) and said that Mourinho had probably deliberately staged the training ground incident to humiliate the French international. Meanwhile, Craig Bellamy thought that Pogba cannot win that particular battle as Mourinho holds all the power.
This is not the first time a manager has grown tired of the wacky antics of one of his players. Jurgen Klopp grew tired of Mamadou Sakho’s relationship with social media and love-in with his own personality and sent him on loan to Crystal Palace. Elsewhere, Alex Ferguson considered David Beckham to be getting too big for his boots and took the Madrid money following a bust-up after a defeat against Arsenal. These things happen.
If the stories are to be believed Pogba is more than keen to move but is being kept to his contract by Ed Woodward. The Executive Vice Chairman has no wish to remove either Mourinho nor Pogba from Old Trafford despite tabloid rumours (Note: Specifically the very worst tabloids) reporting that several senior squad players have threatened to follow Pogba out of the club in the summer because of Mourinho’s tactics.
Should all parties decide it best to move the 25-year-old on there are only a handful of clubs who would take him on? Barcelona, along with PSG and Pogba’s previous club Juventus, would no doubt be interested, but it doesn’t paint either the player or the club in a particularly favourable light if he were leave in January after just two and a half seasons.
Also, for all his faults, Pogba is currently joint top scorer this season along with Romelu Lukaku. Both men have four goals. Could United afford to let him leave while they are already eight points behind leaders Liverpool, particularly as his crime seems to be an honest appraisal of United’s fortunes coupled with a poorly timed selfie? Surely there’s more to it than that.
We will know more on Saturday when United travel to the London Stadium to face West Ham. Pogba may not be anywhere near an armband but is almost certain to start. If he’s on the bench for this one, the writing really will be on the wall.