Manchester United’s Champions League trip to Sevilla on Wednesday night (at 2:45am Cambodian time) is the type of occasion for which the English giants swallowed their pride to pay £89 million ($125 million) for Paul Pogba, four years after he left Old Trafford for Juventus as a free agent.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the French midfielder even starts at the Sanchez Pizjuan for the first leg of the last-16 tie as much due to his form as his fitness.
Pogba hasn’t completed 90 minutes in a month as he has been hauled off by Jose Mourinho in defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle, and dropped by the Portuguese for victory over Huddersfield at Old Trafford in between.
Reports in the French press emerged last week that Pogba is unhappy with the role given to him by Mourinho, in particular the defensive demands imposed by the Portuguese.
Mourinho pointedly said Pogba would have occupied his favoured role on the left of a midfield three for Saturday’s fifth-round FA Cup win at Huddersfield if he had not been ruled out hours before the game due to illness.
The arrival of Alexis Sanchez on the left side of the United attack in January has exacerbated those differences as Pogba and the Chilean are
yet to complete 90 minutes together.
Mourinho described rumours of a breakdown in communication between he and Pogba as “big lies”, but has not hid his criticism of the 24-year-old’s form.
“In this moment he is not playing well . . . and the team needs him at a good level.”
No more so than in the next few weeks, as in between their two legs against Sevilla, United also host Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League with all three sides locked in a battle to finish in the top four.
“When he is not playing at a good level the team is not as good as the team can be,” added Mourinho.
“I think it happens with every team when the best players, the most crucial players, for some reason are not performing.”
Can attacking talent be harnessed?
For the hundreds of millions spent by United in the transfer market in recent seasons, Pogba remains the most marquee of them all having beaten off competition from around Europe to make him then the most
expensive player in the world in 2016.
The question remains whether Mourinho, who extended his contract in January to 2020, and Pogba can reconcile their differences for the common good.
Despite his stellar coaching career, it is not the first time Mourinho has failed to muster the maximum potential from a prestigious talent.
Two of the frontrunners for Player of the Year honours in England, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah, were disregarded by Mourinho and sold on the cheap during his time at Chelsea.
Not long after he returned to United, Pogba told French magazine So Foot he’d be “the new midfielder”.
A player he defined as “can defend, he can win the ball, he can make the play, he can pass, he can score”.
A concept that doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Mourinho’s definition of a box-to-box midfielder in recent weeks.
“[It] means you have to defend well, have the physical conditions to go to the other box, where you have to be good at scoring, creating, heading and then, when your team loses the ball, you have to go to the other box,” Mourinho said. “Now people say a box-to-box has to play free of defensive duties.”
Only time will tell if United’s star player and manager can harmonise their ideas on paper onto reality on the pitch.