Manchester United regained second place in the Premier League on Sunday when they came from behind to beat Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford; but it was academy product Jesse Lingard who stole the headlines.
Stole them fortuitously from his French team mate Paul Pogba who had another performance hardly befitting a man of his talents and looked set to burden himself and his manager with further criticism.
Deployed in his favoured left side of a three in midfield alongside Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay Pogba he seemed more at home, but far from settled as Jose Mourinho looks to get the best from his lavish acquisition without hampering others.
“Simplicity is the trademark of genius” – does that make Mourinho anything but a genius or suggest that a solution to his Pogba problem is anything but simple?
The facts remain: Pogba is not disciplined enough to play in a two nor capable of playing as a ten in a conquering side. Energetic and dynamic performances against average Premier League sides are nowhere near sufficient enough justification to award him that role.
So what to do with him? Well the man who found an answer – not the answer – is in Turin devising a plan to overcome Tottenham. A Tottenham side that exposed Pogba’s inadequacies a few weeks ago at Wembley and provided the catalyst for this conundrum. Juventus coach Max Allegri inherited a raw Pogba in 2014 and found a way to turn him into the world’s most expensive player at the time of his departure in the summer of 2016.
Does this make Allegri the genius? Well he is, but so is Mourinho – they just have a different set of priorities which in turn bring out the best in different individuals. Allegri found it in Pogba; Mourinho is still searching. The problem for the Portugese manager is justifying the £90 million outlay it took to bring him back to Old Trafford.
Allegri, in a short time, found a way of turning Pogba into a player who helped his side reach the 2015 Champions League final. The Italian had the tools which assisted the development of a player overflowing with talent but seemingly lacking understanding of how to play at the elite level.
The now retired Andrea Pirlo and current Juventus midfield Claudio Marchisio did on the field what Allegri did off it: guide a player desperately in need of guidance. Pirlo was renowned for playing the game with his head, so putting him alongside a man who’s only priority is to play the game with his feet complimented the Juventus midfield.
Marchisio and Arturo Vidal during his time at the club all played their role in nurturing this immensely talented individual. So much so that his insufficiencies as a central midfielder have only been bought to light whilst in the red of Manchester United.
It calls into question the motives behind the transfer that lured Pogba back to England. Did Mourinho want a player who, beyond his talent and connection with the club, was much sought after among Europe’s elite to undermine the fact he had now combined forces with a club he believed to be the biggest in the world.
Mourinho is far too tactically educated to purchase players fuelled by any sense of naivety. He has bought, throughout his career, players who filled gaps or upgraded positions he deemed sub par. Yet Pogba’s upward trajectory in Italy had always been in either a three or a four man midfield.
The frustration for fans and no doubt Pogba himself is that Manchester United have their own Pirlo like character in club captain Michael Carrick. The 36-year-old may well be retiring this season but is was well documented last season just how much better Mourinho’s side played when they had the former England international in their side. Another player who makes up for his lack of pace with a deep understanding of the game. A understanding that Pogba would’ve reaped the education of, but an opportunity that looks set to pass him by.
You can, sometimes, only look as good as the players around you allow you to. That no doubt magnified Pogba’s talent in Turin, but now in Manchester he is being asked to plug gaps and fill holes he previously never needed to. The onus appears to be on Mourinho to find a solution to this enigmatic situation, but Pogba must shoulder more responsibility and accept the need to evolve perhaps in a way he didn’t previously envisage.
That serves to show the genius of the Bianconeri’s manager. He found a system and utilised individuals in a way that allowed Pogba to flourish without undermining others. A system that bought a Champions League final in 2015 was tweaked upon his departure and bought he same reward two years later.
In Allegri’s first year Pogba played often in a diamond four-man midfield before being deployed in a three-man midfield 12 months later when Juventus looked to add more width to their game with the likes of Juan Cuadrado and Paulo Dybala. Upon his departure Juventus replaced him with Bosnian Miralem Pjanic and a seamless transition occurred which culminated in Cardiff; only to be outclassed by Real Madrid.
Juventus and Allegri are up against it to repeat their feat of 12 months ago whilst Manchester United are slight favourites to go through to the quarter finals in Europe. Winning football’s most illustrious prize for a third time though will evade Mourinho until he harnesses the potential of his leading lights.
The point of difference between Pogba in England and Pogba in Italy was how Allegri found a way to incorporate him in a winning side, Mourinho merely includes him in one still searching for the winning formula. Pogba should be viewed as vital but not indispensable.