Poor form casts Pall over Pogba

Paul Pogba
Paul PogbaPHOTO: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Jonathan Hogg
Jonathan HoggPHOTO: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

If named to play against Huddersfield, he will have to restore Mourinho's faith in his ability

Jose Mourinho named his team to face Huddersfield. Paul Pogba was not in it. It is probably not the scenario tomorrow. It was three weeks ago.

Pogba was benched for that Premier League clash, emerging for a sparkling cameo in a 2-0 win, but there is a difference between omitting Manchester United's record signing for a home match against relegation-threatened opponents and an away game in a knockout competition that represents his club's best chance of silverware.

So Pogba will probably play in the FA Cup fifth-round tie tomorrow.

United have invested too much - an £89 million (S$163.8 million) transfer fee, a further £41 million to his agent, time and faith - and should again be without Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini. So the questions instead revolve around where he plays, how he plays and how long he plays.

A man of Pogba's exuberance likes the limelight. That was just as well when he became the world's most expensive footballer. But the scrutiny has changed, along with the context.

A few weeks ago, he was the league's joint leader for the most assists. United were unbeaten in the 36 league games he played in. Not any more. Away defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle have stripped him of his talismanic status. Mourinho has downgraded him.

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  • Shots on target Huddersfield had playing against United in January.

Pogba has gone from being an untouchable - never dropped, never substituted, never criticised - to the latest player to experience policies of tough love and confrontational leadership. If the Frenchman is being tested, an enigma represents a challenge to the Portuguese.

  • Key battles: Huddersfield Town v Manchester United

  • JONATHAN HOGG v PAUL POGBA

    Hogg took the captain's armband last week and led by example for Huddersfield. The defensive midfielder will have to halt Pogba if he raids forward. The Frenchman has not scored on the road since the 4-0 win at Swansea in August, though he was a huge influence on the counter-attack at Arsenal, before his eventual red card.

    FLORENT HADERGJONAJ v ALEXIS SANCHEZ

    Sanchez scored his first United goal against Huddersfield, with a rebound after his penalty was saved. Town resorted to the illegal to stop him, fouling him seven times that day.

    Hadergjonaj was at fault for Bournemouth's goal in Huddersfield's 4-1 win on Saturday. The Swiss right-back may be out of his depth against the Chilean.

    STEVE MOUNIE V CHRIS SMALLING

    Smalling was hapless at Newcastle, even getting booked for diving, and there are questions about whether he and Phil Jones are a suitable pair.

    Mounie, who was Huddersfield's record buy, spurred them back to winning ways last week when he played a part in their first three goals. His pace and height make him a threat.

Mourinho has felt wedded to 4-2-3-1 for the best part of a decade but United have often required the added security of 4-3-3 on their travels, where Herrera has been underused and Mourinho should have sacrificed a No. 10.

The evidence from both Juventus and France is that Pogba is at his best on the left of a midfield trio, when he is afforded greater freedom to roam.

United can usually make do with a duo at home; they might away at Huddersfield, who will be without injured midfielder Aaron Mooy and the Cup-tied Alex Pritchard.

But Pogba's positional indiscipline and capacity to get caught ahead of the ball was an issue at Wembley, when Spurs flooded attacking midfielders into the areas he vacated. He looked injured at St James' Park and, were Mourinho trying to spare him, he would have claimed that was why the player was removed.

Except the manager did not choose that option, instead drawing attention to Pogba's role in Newcastle's goal. He failed to jump for a header but his height (1.91m) is one of many reasons why Mourinho said last week: "It is difficult to play a midfielder with more potential than Paul."

Few have such a blend of the technical and the physical, but that still leaves the positional. Pogba has to ensure he is in the right parts of the pitch and in the headlines for the right reasons.

HUDDERSFIELD V MAN UNITED

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'Poor form casts Pall over Pogba'. Print Edition | Subscribe