Paul Pogba was soccer’s most expensive player two years ago. He was lifting the World Cup with France only five months ago.
So how has it gotten to the stage where, on Sunday, one of the world’s most talented midfielders didn’t even get off the bench for Manchester United in one of its biggest matches of the season against Liverpool?
With a few minutes left of United’s 3-1 loss at Anfield, cameras panned to Pogba sitting on the bench, his arms folded, the hood of his training top shielding his face from the driving rain on a bitterly cold day in northwest England.
Put simply, Pogba wasn’t trusted to be on the field. United manager Jose Mourinho did not believe Pogba could carry out his orders or had the necessary qualities to cope with Liverpool’s hard-working midfielders.
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It was the third straight Premier League game in which Pogba was on the bench, and the second in a row where he didn’t get off it.
His relationship with Mourinho, which had looked to be tearing apart in the first few months of the season, appears to be broken beyond repair.
It was telling that Mourinho, speaking before kickoff against Liverpool, spoke of how United had become “more aggressive, more simple and more intense without the ball” with Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard as the central-midfield three in recent games.
If that was a pointed comment regarding Pogba’s previous lackluster displays, then what Mourinho said after the final whistle also seemed to be with his $116 million midfielder in mind.
“I repeat, I am really, really happy with the players I have on the pitch with their attitude and their effort,” he said, stressing the word “on.” ”I am more than happy. Because I am more than happy, I assume responsibility for the defeat. Honest people gave everything.”
In a separate interview, Mourinho again chose his words carefully and purposely in saying that players “that were on the pitch today” gave everything.
“A football player has to give all every day, maximum every day, every match, every minute,” Mourinho said. “Doesn’t matter the manager, doesn’t matter anything.”
So who will be the winner between Pogba and Mourinho in a fight that is being played out in public? Surely it will be Pogba, an extremely talented 25-year-old midfielder who is not even in the prime years of his career. Not Mourinho, who has shown so far in his managerial career that three years is about his maximum at a club.
Why get rid of one of your best players in the January transfer window if the reason he is not performing — Mourinho — might not even be around a few months later?
It is increasingly looking like the end game for Mourinho.
It is United’s worst 17-game start to a season in the Premier League era (from 1992), with Mourinho’s team 19 points behind first-place Liverpool and 11 points off fourth-place Chelsea in the race for Champions League qualification.
United has no identity or clear pattern of play under Mourinho, and he is not getting his best out of the squad.
But history has shown Mourinho should be safe for now. David Moyes, who lasted 10 months as Alex Ferguson’s successor in 2013, was only fired once a top-four finish in the league couldn’t be secured. Louis van Gaal was fired at the end of the season, after winning the FA Cup.
However sore the loss to Liverpool feels right now at United, Mourinho should still get to lead the team into the Champions League knockout stage — it will face Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 — and to try to claw back the deficit to the top four in the league. United’s next four games over English soccer’s hectic festive period are against Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Newcastle, which either offer Mourinho a chance to make up ground or to slip further into the mire.
It means the offseason is likely the time to separate from Mourinho, who will then have a year left on his deal.
Only then, under a different coach, might we get to see the best of Pogba at United.
More AP English soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/PremierLeague and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80