By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) – When Jose Mourinho joined forces with Paul Pogba two years ago, the marriage of a great manager and the world’s most expensive player was hailed as the partnership that could reignite the fire in an ailing Manchester United.
Instead, the only speculation around Old Trafford these days as one of the world’s great clubs continue their laborious struggle to rediscover the halcyon days of the Alex Ferguson era seems to be not if, but when this dream alliance will end in divorce.
After resting Pogba from the team knocked out of the League Cup by second-tier Derby County on Tuesday — another blow in United’s underwhelming season — Mourinho announced he had also stripped the France midfielder of the vice-captaincy.
It came amid other reports that Mourinho had dressed down the World Cup winner in front of his team mates, telling him he would never be captain at United again.
Yet when asked about all this, Mourinho said breezily after the Derby game there was “no fallout, no problems at all” with Pogba about his demotion but it was a decision that the Portuguese said he did not have to, and would not, explain.
Mourinho’s protestations of sweetness and light convinced few after a season in which the pair’s verbal flak has been the overriding soundtrack to another campaign in which Mourinho, once seen as the master man manager, has again failed to coax the best from Pogba on a consistent basis.
And on Wednesday, footage of a frosty exchange at United’s training-ground between the pair, with Pogba looking quizzical and non-plussed by stony-faced asides from Mourinho, only added fuel to suggestions of a major rift.
Mourinho’s latest stand smacks of a leader who has decided to go all-in on reimposing his authority at Old Trafford, evidently deciding that the provocative comments from his most important player were the final straw.
Following the disappointing draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers after which Mourinho criticised his players’ lack of commitment, Pogba, popular and influential among United’s players, told the media he thought the team should “attack, attack, attack”.
To Mourinho, this may have only felt like a denigration of his approach and a shameless bid to court more support from those many United supporters who have never been convinced that the safety-first nature of the Portuguese fits a club with verve and flair in its DNA.
To a manager who will hold his medals up against anybody’s and actually thrives on confrontation, Mourinho may have been calculating that Pogba, for all his occasional bursts of brilliance, is simply not playing well enough for United to challenge him so guilelessly.
In any power struggle, he may feel he would still win out with Pogba especially amid media reports that a move to Barcelona is being engineered for Pogba by his “super-agent” Mino Raiola.
Yet it could be argued that Mourinho, who has cut an increasingly distant and discontented figure at United this season, is only paying for his own failure to squeeze regularly from Pogba the sort of brilliance he offered in the blue shirt of France during their World Cup run.
This was the Pogba that Mourinho believed he could build his vision of United around back in 2016. At 89 million pounds, he got his man and declared: “He is young, will improve and has the chance to be at the heart of this club for the next decade and beyond.”
Maybe, at 25, he still will but for the moment, it is far from clear if it will be him or Mourinho left standing at Old Trafford when the smoke from their conflagration clears.
It is, of course, eminently possible as they bicker while United flounder that it could be neither.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Ed Osmond)