Jose Mourinho may well have allowed himself a wry smile at the tactics: a vitally needed win followed by a grenade being lobbed post-match. It is something he has been doing for years. A classic drive-by.
Indeed he did it again himself by pointedly talking about how he should be referred to as a head coach not a manager in case there was any doubt – and there was none – at his unhappiness over Manchester United’s summer, pre-season preparations and their transfer dealings.
But in 84 minutes on the pitch before being substituted and then 19 words off it Paul Pogba demonstrated his power at Old Trafford on Friday evening in the Premier League’s opening fixture against Leicester City.
Admirably Pogba had returned to the team after just a couple of training sessions following his post-World Cup break, he was shrewdly awarded the captain’s armband by Mourinho after answering the manager’s call to help, he flamboyantly scored an early penalty and he walked off as the man-of-the-match.
Just what United needed. It was all good, positive stuff and surely a time to draw a line under things and move on with a new season and a fresh start. High fives all round. Then Pogba spoke. “There are things I can say and there are things that I cannot say, otherwise I will get fined,” he told newspaper reporters – not to camera, of course – and without mentioning any names which led to accusations by some United fans of a media conspiracy, an agenda, and claims of deliberately stirring things up.
So, okay, then who or what could Pogba be referring to? Certainly not the United kit-man or tea-lady or any of his team-mates. They would not have the power to fine him. And – probably – not the club itself as they have made it clear just how highly they value him and will steadfastly resist any attempt from Barcelona to sign him before the transfer window closes on Aug 31. That is something that, over the weekend, Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu hinted they may well still try and do.
Given that United and significantly Pogba’s camp have also insisted he is not agitating for a pay rise and a bumper new contract then he does not appear unhappy with his current deal which has three years left to run. So it points – inconclusively and deliberately obliquely, of course – to the manager because the midfielder has done nothing to upset the Football Association who would also have the power to level a financial sanction if he broke one of their rules.
“If you are not happy you cannot give your best,” Pogba also said while, to reinforce that point, he posted on Instagram: “I’ll always give my best to the fans and my teammates no matter what’s going on. #pogfeelings’”
No matter what is going on? Those “Pogfeelings” appear to have been hurt by someone. Again it is deliberately unclear who but, piece by piece, the picture appears and it is a pretty bold one even if everything remains deniable. It is a picture that also shows the confidence Pogba has in his standing at United and his importance and status to the club. He goes close enough to saying what he wants to say without actually having to say it.
It is hard to believe Mourinho has been left pleased by all of this and it will be interesting to see how he handles it during his media briefings ahead of Sunday’s league match away to Brighton. He may just turn it back on the media as more “lies” about his relationship with some players. He may not.
With Mourinho’s own comments about Pogba there is, as ever with him, truth and it may well be argued that the player is simply being far too sensitive to valid criticism. The 25-year-old does need to focus more clearly on his football and did that during the World Cup with France to huge success.
He returned from Russia a World Cup winner and for all his astonishing talent the fact is he has not delivered – yet – for United to warrant his status as their most expensive ever signing and a player who should be among the absolute elite. But whose fault is that?
There was even another social media posting, which appeared to back up Mourinho’s criticism, of Pogba having two stars carved into his scalp. In essence he has every right to do so – they were to celebrate France’s two World Cup wins – but it fuelled the argument that he is too easily distracted and that style can appear to come first over substance.
Mourinho hailed Pogba as “absolutely brilliant” in the final three matches of France’s World Cup campaign but that was overtaken by the criticism especially as it followed on from the problems of last season when the player was dropped for United’s Champions League match against Sevilla and taken off in other games for tactical reasons.
All of this is taking place amid claims that Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, has been offering him to Europe’s leading clubs. In April Pep Guardiola alleged that Manchester City were invited by Raiola to bid for Pogba – something the agent denied - while Barcelona are interested and are also prepared to play a longer game in the hope of eventually signing him.
Mourinho had said it was about Pogba “understanding why he was so good” at the World Cup to replicate that form for United. Now Pogba has delivered his response which, logically, is that it was because he was happier with France and wants to be happier at United. The big question is whether this will blow over, whether it is just froth or whether it will become one of the themes of the season. Pogba has made his power-play.
A VAR middle ground could be the solution
Jan Vertonghen’s goal against Newcastle United probably would not have been given without goal-line technology being in place while Sadio Mane’s second goal against West Ham United would have been ruled out for offside if there was a video assistant referee. What a strange state of affairs.
As former referee Keith Hackett wrote on these pages the game is being done a disservice by the Premier League after it voted for trials to be extended for another year rather than introduce VAR now.
Surely, though, a clear half-way house would have been to introduce VAR this season – but only to cover offside calls. They are, obviously, less subjective decisions than other areas covered by VAR which lead to confusion. Just like goal-line technology when the ball is either over the line or not – and for Vertonghen’s goal that was just 9mm - then a player is either offside or not.