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Why Is José Mourinho Picking a Fight With Paul Pogba?

Although Manchester United remain in second place in the Premier League, they’ve won just two of their last five games, and cracks are beginning to show. The manager’s latest solution: put his best player on the bench.

Paul Pogba and José Mourinho staring each other down Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba started another game on the bench. With rumors swirling that the French superstar is looking for a way out of Old Trafford, the guys from Ringer FC got together to discuss the latest crisis for José Mourinho’s club after Wednesday’s underwhelming scoreless draw at Sevilla.

Ryan O’Hanlon: Let’s just quickly recap the drama: In the 2–0 loss to Tottenham a few weeks ago, José Mourinho subbed off Paul Pogba just an hour into the match. Then, he dropped him from the lineup for the 2–0 win over Huddersfield. Then, he put him back into the lineup against Newcastle, but again subbed him off at the 60-minute mark, as United lost 1–0. And then! Again! Mourinho dropped Pogba from the starting 11 — this time in the Champions League against Sevilla. So, Micah, here’s a question that presumably keeps you up at night: Why does Manchester United’s manager seem so reticent to play Manchester United’s best player?

Micah Peters: Well, to hear Mourinho tell it, it was Pogba’s own decision not to play against Huddersfield, which led to him being on the bench for United’s biggest game of the season thus far, because Pogba “wasn’t feeling one hundred percent.”

Donnie Kwak: Yet it was Herrera who was clearly not 100 percent …

Peters: Yeah, in the same postgame availability, he talked about Herrera going off with an injury in the 17th minute against Sevilla and about how Herrera had been suffering from injuries over the last two games. That, he said, was the medical team’s fault.

O’Hanlon: Exactly. He’s not saying that Pogba’s injured — which would be an easy way to avoid any controversy. “Oh, yeah, I’m monitoring his minutes because he’s carrying a knock,” or whatever. Instead, it sounds more like Mourinho is straight-up publicly challenging him: “Paul, it’s up to you to start feeling the way I want you to feel.”

Kwak: It’s an interesting conundrum because Pogba is the type of player who almost requires a manager to build his formation around him. When you slot him in like he was Wednesday, playing Herrera’s role after he came off injured, he looks neutered. But I think José doesn’t want to build the team around Pogba, despite his fee.

Peters: Transfer fee aside, I don’t know why you’d insist on playing your best player out of position, but I’m — as Mourinho would say — critiquing from my couch.

Kwak: You saw Arsène Wenger fiddle around with Mesut Ozil’s positioning in his first couple of seasons, but now there is no doubt that the team is built around his strengths.

Peters: This isn’t about Arsenal.

Kwak: Point being, José is about José’s way. But getting results doesn’t always make fans or even the players happy.

Peters: Here’s the thing, though: Results at the expense of the enjoyment of the fans is one thing, but at the expense of the future of the club is a different thing entirely. Moreover, these aren’t the results a team with this much talent should be getting!

Kwak: It does make me chuckle to see how effusive with praise José has been for Scott McTominay, a.k.a. Tom Cleverley Part Deux.

Peters: The Scott McTominay project has gone entirely too far.

Kwak: Going home 0–0 is not a bad result! A scoring draw would have been a better result, but it’s still a good result. And United will go through.

O’Hanlon: It amazes me that you can feel that confident. They couldn’t create anything against Sevilla and were pinned back for the entire match. It’s not like “moving the game to Old Trafford” will suddenly shift the balance of things in United’s favor. The gap was too wide Wednesday for that to be true.

Peters: 26–5 was the shot count.

O’Hanlon: And once again, David De Gea had to rewrite the rules of physics to keep the game level. The thing I wonder with all of this, really, is just: Why?

Kwak: Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as subs. Jesse Lingard on the bench. All of United’s best offensive performances this season include these players.

O’Hanlon: But all of their best performances also include, you know, PAUL FREAKING POGBA.

Kwak: José started with a somewhat negative lineup, and after 45 it seemed clear that no goal was coming. So he shut it down. Good tactic.

O’Hanlon: But Donnie, we’re not talking about a team like Wigan.

Kwak: But we are talking about a man who knows how to win a European Cup. Also: They play Chelsea over the weekend.

Peters: We’re talking about a man who won a European Cup last year, yes, but United still look like a Europa League team. Sevilla were incredibly unlucky not to win that game by at least 3–0. If United do go through to the quarters, they’ll be the team the rest of the last eight will want to draw. There are several other, more important questions like, “How can there still be Chris Smalling?” or “Why is Luke Shaw playing behind Ashley Young?” or “Why is Lukaku playing with his back to goal so often?” or “What does Mourinho have against Anthony Martial?”

O’Hanlon: And that’s why I don’t get Mourinho’s fixation on Pogba.

Kwak: Is it José’s fixation? Or the media’s …

O’Hanlon: It’s not the media. Mourinho isn’t playing his best player. End of story.

Kwak: He will start against Chelsea, and he will start the second leg.

Peters: I just don’t buy that you can’t argue with a clean sheet. If playing for the second leg was the intent, then the first leg was entirely too chaotic to bear that out. AND IF YOU ARE TRYING TO WIN A GAME, YOU PLAY YOUR BEST PLAYER.

Kwak: I just don’t think it’s that ridiculous to sit Pogba in what will always have been a cagey first leg of a Champions League tie in a difficult stadium to get a result. Especially with a huge league match a few days later.

O’Hanlon: I don’t agree with that — you buy Paul Pogba for games like this — but even if that was true, Donnie, Mourinho didn’t say a word about “rotation.” You’re ascribing better intentions to him than he’s ever admitted to.

Peters: Now, if you wanted to argue that McTominay does simple things well and is more disciplined defensively … then I would still say that’s because Pogba isn’t a defensive midfielder and belongs at the tip of a three-man midfield. Where he should’ve been from first kick on Wednesday.

Kwak: But it does again come down to ye olde entertainment-vs.-pragmatism debate that always surfaces with José. Micah, you’re a United fan. Second place in the league. Well and alive in the Champions League and likely headed to the quarters. Is there really a crisis at United because Pogba had to sit for a match?

Also re: McTominay, this José quote is pretty dog whistle-y: “Honestly I think Scott deserves more than what he’s getting. I think maybe because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches. A humble kid, who arrived at the club when he was nine or ten.”

O’Hanlon: Saying that after benching Pogba is a fireable offense.

Kwak: He’s a petty troll. Are we shocked?

Peters: Second place in the Prem, for now. Likely, but not assured, to head to the quarters. And Pogba sitting is the symptom of a larger problem, which is that Mourinho refuses to do the logical thing and play all of his best players together at the same time, which produces bland, underwhelming soccer. For a global soccer giant, United seem small week in and week out. And again, just generally, stop congratulating people for having no swag.

Kwak: Is Pogba absolved of any fault for this predicament? The match I remember him being most imperious was against Everton. Recall Arsenal’s last match against Everton. False positive.

O’Hanlon: That’s the thing we’re losing track of with all of this. Pogba’s attacking numbers this year (nearly 0.8 goals-plus-assists per 90 minutes) are unimpeachable — especially for a central midfielder. If Mourinho is worried about the solidity of his team with Pogba in the side, he’s looking for answers in the wrong book. The problem is that Nemanja Matic is washed. The problem is that English football ruined Ander Herrera. The problem is that your starting fullbacks are Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. The problem is that Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are still consistently starting at center back. The results have been OK — they’re 16 points back of their supposed same-city rivals, by the way — but there are plenty of problems with this team right now. Pogba isn’t one of them.