Perhaps it’s time for Jose Mourinho to surrender to Paul Pogba’s captivating, complex genius

Manchester United midfielder Pogba is that rarest of things: a player who isn’t bound by our expectations. A player who will beat the trail unblazed, try the unconventional, deliver the unforeseen

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Monday 22 October 2018 09:26
Maurizio Sarri reflects on Chelsea late draw against Manchseter United

He’s going nowhere. Hemmed in against his own left touchline, retreating towards his own goal, with N’Golo Kante and Willian stalking him like sentinels. No space, no options.

We’ve seen this situation a thousand times before, in a thousand different games with a thousand different players, and we can predict exactly how it plays out. Best case scenario, he manages to knock it against Kante and win a throw. Or perhaps squeeze a pass all the way back to David de Gea, 45 yards away in the Manchester United goal.

But every so often, you come across a player like Paul Pogba, who isn’t bound by our expectations of him. A player who will beat the trail unblazed, try the unconventional, deliver the unforeseen. Who will take on the pass nobody else even contemplates, the long shot nobody else even sees, because for most of us, it’s simply not within our capability. What we know as muscle memory is, in Pogba’s case, better described as muscle ingenuity. His every movement fizzes with invention, inspiration, the mercurial.

Sometimes it gets him into trouble. Marking at corners, for example. When your entire footballing identity, your every sporting instinct, is based on setting yourself apart, finding space, transgressing the usual conventions of movement, perhaps tracking another player step for step isn’t the most natural thing in the world. And so around 50 minutes earlier, Pogba had found himself largely at fault for Chelsea’s opening goal, momentarily losing his man Antonio Rudiger after David Luiz had expertly blocked him off.

For Pogba’s detractors, this sort of stuff drives them crazy. Graeme Souness, famously, can’t stand Pogba, to the extent that he seems to be offended by the very concept of him. And while people like to assume this antipathy is based on race and culture, perhaps it’s as much about footballing ideology and temperament. While they played in roughly the same area of the pitch, performing roughly similar roles, it’s hard to think of two less similar players in terms of their approach to the game.

Souness’s career, essentially, was based on doing simple things to an exceptional level. The short pass, the crunching tackle, the timely intervention, the 20-yard shot; rarely would he surprise you with what he did, but he would just do it calmer, stronger, better, more consistently than you. Souness’s gift, essentially, was one of anticipation: the ability to see what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Pogba’s gift, on the other hand, is to make that thing happen. His urge is to create, to paint, to make something from nothing. It’s why he doesn’t really understand defensive movement. Never has. If you go left, Pogba's instinct isn't to follow you there, but to feint right instead. If he were 5ft 9in and Spanish instead of 6ft 3in and French, he wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near his own penalty area.

And where Pogba has excelled in his career, it has been with a more defensive-minded foil behind him: Arturo Vidal and Sami Khedira at Juventus, Kante with France, and here Nemanja Matic, shuttling from collision to collision like a very large wardrobe being controlled from the touchline by remote control.

“Everyone knows with closed eyes which man is their man, and which zone is their zone,” an exasperated Jose Mourinho sighed afterwards, but he didn’t throw Pogba under the bus. Perhaps, over time, he too has grasped the basic covenant you sign whenever you engage Pogba: that the occasional lapse going back will be counterbalanced by the occasional flash of insight going forward that only he can really provide.

It was just Mourinho’s luck, and Pogba’s, that both would occur in the same game.

Pogba is an unconventional midfielder

And so, nine minutes into the second half, hemmed in against his own left touchline, retreating towards his own goal, with no space and no options, Pogba somehow found both. In a fraction of a second, he swivelled on the ball, spinning back towards the Chelsea goal. As Jorginho steamed in to put out the danger, Pogba stretched out a telescopic toe and nudged the ball in between his legs, sending him all the way back to Naples. Thirty seconds later, the ball was in the Chelsea net, via a parried shot, a couple of crosses and about half a dozen deflections. From a nothing position, United and Pogba had indulged their inner chaos, and hauled themselves back into the game.

For the next 20 minutes, Pogba was in control of the game. He did the simple stuff well, but as ever it was the complicated, far-sighted stuff that stood out. The elegant flicks and lay-offs. The quick long passes. The audacious long-range efforts. “We did not have to think about it, we just had to go for it,” Pogba explained after United came back from 2-0 down to beat Newcastle 3-2 a couple of weeks ago, and this was another example, as was the second half of the World Cup final against Croatia. When play is broken, when the momentum is lurching, when chaos reigns, there are few better interpreters of the game anywhere in the world.

But then, Mourinho took control once more. He brought off Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, brought on two holding players in Andreas Pereira and Ander Herrera, and all of a sudden Pogba was shackled again.

Mourinho's substitutions inadvertently shackled the Frenchman

This time, Mourinho’s attempt to sterilise the game failed. Not only did Ross Barkley slam in a late equaliser and cost them two points, but Pogba was a shadow of the player he had been just minutes earlier. Between 45 and 75 minutes, Pogba completed 13 passes, seven in the opposition half, with three take-ons and four ball recoveries. Between 75 and 99 minutes (including extensive added time) he completed two passes, neither in the attacking half, with one take-on and no ball recoveries.

Mourinho, as a rule, has always preferred the known to the unknown, the sure thing over the hopeful punt, the guaranteed return over the intrepid investment: Sanchez over Mkhitaryan, Pandev over Quaresma, Oscar over De Bruyne, Ronaldo the striker over Ronaldo the winger. But with elite attacking football shifting ever more resolutely in the direction of imagination over organisation, formlessness over structure, Mourinho’s teams are in danger of looking increasingly predictable.

And you wonder whether United’s fate this season lies in that precarious tug-of-war between Pogba’s chaos and Mourinho’s control, whether one has to be thwarted for the other to succeed, whether United are possibly capable of harnessing them both. It may go against his every instinct, but perhaps a little of Pogba’s chaos is just what United need right now.

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