As France lifted the World Cup on Sunday, Roy Keane – one of Paul Pogba’s biggest critics since the Frenchman’s return to Manchester United – remarked to his accomplices in the ITV studio; “I don’t mind Pogba dancing now. He’s entitled to have a dance now he’s won the World Cup. He can do whatever the hell he wants with his hair.”
It may seem a flippant remark from a pundit who enjoys making them, but it’s a poignant one nonetheless, one that captures how the mood has inevitably changed, and how – in the context of dressing room politics at Old Trafford – Jose Mourinho has ended up one of the biggest losers from a tournament he wasn’t even involved in.
The last two seasons were littered with debates over whether a failure to unlock Pogba’s truest potential was a consequence of the Frenchman’s mindset or Mourinho’s instructions, but it’s a lot harder to criticise a midfielder who’s just surged forward in a World Cup final to score a ripping curler from the edge of the box than it is a manager who has never quite dragged that same kind of form out of him on a consistent basis.
So for a serial self-preservationist like Mourinho, the wisest decision he could make this summer is to exploit Pogba’s form at the World Cup by controversially cashing in, after a surprising consistency at the tournament has completely changed the paradigm of Mourinho’s awkward relationship with his most expensive ever signing.
After all, having proved so effective under Didier Deschamps, a manager who many felt wasn’t even properly qualified to lead the eventual winners into the Russia World Cup, the onus is now firmly on Mourinho rather than Pogba to find a way of reproducing that calibre of performance at club level. There will no longer be two schools of thought on the issue with one brand of pundits backing Mourinho, at least not in quite the same way or to such a strong degree – as Keane has already alluded to.
It questions Mourinho’s ability, his capacity to keep up with the modernity of young footballers, more than it does Pogba’s, and for a player to have that kind of widespread justification over a manager inevitably challenges the United gaffer’s credibility. The strategy of making Pogba the scapegoat, like hauling him off halfway through a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham, won’t quite stack up with the reality of his latest and greatest accomplishment.
In many ways though, Mourinho would be even wiser to sell before he’s dragged into such a dangerous game that’s based purely on perception alone. After all, for how consistent and effective Pogba’s been this summer, the World Cup is a completely different beast to club football, one his usual mentality has no doubt adapted around.
During a month-long tournament where national pride was the only honour on offer and motivation available, there were no needless Hollywood passes when simplicity would have sufficed, there were no audacious fashion statement haircuts, and there were no self-interested social media campaigns. Just football, France and the World Cup.
Managing Pogba for a 38-game season is clearly an incredibly different task, one that Mourinho’s struggled to master as they approach a third consecutive season together. And as much as we question the Portuguese’s use of a World Cup winning midfielder who offers goals, assists, creativity, power and flair from the engine room, we must beg questions of Pogba’s mentality as well. As good as Mourinho is, there’s only an extent to which he can truly and permanently affect that.
The other factor too, is how France’s midfield differs so much from Manchester United’s. Nemanja Matic is one of the most solid midfield generals in the business, but he can’t cover those gaping chasms of space Pogba’s offensive nature leaves behind in the same way as N’Golo Kante, a completely unique footballer who can make pretty much any partner alongside him look like a world-beater.
It’s the old cliché of Kante doing the work of two midfielders. United just don’t have that luxury. But the buck won’t be passed to Matic or summer signing Fred – Mourinho’s philosophy and instructions will be seen as the underlying factor.
And the cold truth, the harsh bottom line, is so simple that it’s impossible to dispute. Pogba – who Transfermarkt value at £81million – and Mourinho have never quite bought into each other as a partnership, and although the Portuguese has shown a recurring reluctance to admit he made the wrong call in bringing the Frenchman back to Old Trafford for an eye-watering £100million, United will never have a better chance to get their money back or earn a handsome profit on it than this summer.
After lifting the World Cup, the stock in Pogba’s footballing ability – rather than his marketing potential – is at an all-time high. If there will ever be a fitting time for Mourinho to accept Pogba hasn’t become the player he anticipated, it’s undoubtedly now.
So, United fans, would you cash in on Pogba’s World Cup success? Let us know by voting below…