Manchester United’s poor start to the season continued as they crashed out of the EFL Cup with a penalty shoot-out defeat at home to Derby County.
Paul Pogba watched on from the stands but again found himself as the centre of attention after manager Jose Mourinho confirmed reports – which emerged earlier on Tuesday – that the France midfielder had been stripped of United’s vice captaincy.
Mourinho insisted there was no problem between the duo but his latest move has been widely viewed as a powerplay to reassert his authority over an ailing squad.
Increasingly, it appears something has to give, but in whom should the Old Trafford hierarchy invest their hopes of future success? The World Cup-winning record signing or the serial trophy winner charged with restoring the Alex Ferguson glory years? Two of our writers pick their side in the debate.
PAUL POGBA – Dom Farrell
Amid the swirling mess of nonsense around Pogba, and Mourinho and United’s spluttering early season form, there were the reports linking the 25-year-old with a move to Barcelona, something he was apparently keen on due to relations with his manager breaking down.
This does not play out particularly well for Pogba, especially at a club such as United where reverence to the authority of the man in the dugout remains strong despite the missteps of the post-Ferguson era.
But ask yourself this – which other outfield player in this unbalanced, functional and uninspiring squad would be linked to another European heavyweight? None of them. Despite the likes of Graeme Souness trying to blame him for all the world’s wrongs, Pogba remains a supreme performer who can elevate his team-mates. You can probably find motivation along those lines within Mourinho’s muddled game of carrot and stick with the armband.
Pogba played with poise and maturity as France romped to glory at Russia 2018, scoring his country’s vital third goal in the 4-2 final win over Croatia.
Instead of harnessing this, Mourinho chose to take a pre-season pot shot at a man who had shown clear leadership qualities for Les Bleus. As such, he should not be surprised that a proud and confident footballer has bitten back in interviews of his own.
By taking the vice-captaincy from a player who has scored four goals and supplied two assists since first wearing the United armband, Mourinho does not look like an authority figure but a man reacting to events as they spiral out of his control. This, unfortunately, is a theme of his career since an acrimonious departure from Real Madrid in 2013.
A weight of history plays a part for both men – Mourinho, the dominant title-winning force of his glory years, and Pogba, the brash youngster who came back to United from Juventus. But when assessing the talents and capabilities of both today, there is only one man to back. And it is not Mourinho.
JOSE MOURINHO – Jon Fisher
The case for Mourinho remaining at Old Trafford is relatively straightforward: he is the lesser of two big problems
When Pogba rejoined Manchester United in 2016, he claimed it had “always been a club with a special place in my heart”. However, he has done little to prove it on or off the pitch in the subsequent two years.
Then the world’s most expensive player, Pogba was signed to be a figurehead, a man to drive United’s resurgence following the fallow years under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
With that price tag and status comes a level of responsibility – the kind of responsibility Pogba showed as the tub-thumping leader in the France dressing room in Les Bleus’ impressive run to World Cup glory.
With France he relishes being part of the collective. At United he chooses to be an individual with Machiavellian tendencies. Do not kid yourself that Pogba is unaware of the storm he creates every time he questions Mourinho in an interview. Would he do the same to Didier Deschamps? Absolutely not.
And that brings us to the crux of the issue: Pogba’s fundamental lack of respect for Mourinho, who, like him or loathe him, has a managerial record unparalleled in the modern game.
There are very few examples of player power benefitting a club long term and this, ultimately, would be no different. Should Pogba win the power struggle and force Mourinho out, what happens if the players don’t like the new man? The precedent will have been set, they’ll know what to do, and the cycle will continue.
Pogba devotees will argue the team will be weaker without him. Really? Since his second coming, United have played 33 games without the former Juventus star. In those matches they have a winning percentage of 67 per cent. In the 95 games with him in the side, it’s 59 per cent.
A negative influence on the field and a persistent distraction off it. It’s time for United to get shot.