HeartOfFootball

Running afoul on and off field, Pogba is missing link

Unless you plan to be in Cuba, Moldova, St Kitts or North Korea, there is every chance that tonight's Manchester derby will be on a screen near you.

A parochial match, between neighbours each fielding hundreds of millions of pounds worth of imported players who stand first and second in the English Premier League, it will be televised live to 183 territories on every continent.

There is just one reason to suggest you have an alternative plan for your late evening:

Heavy snow is forecast. And whereas in decades past the falling snow seldom put off Mancunians or anyone else from a December derby in the old country, there are these days something called health and safety considerations.

Old Trafford's turf is protected against frost through undersoil heating. But the police and the local authorities are mindful that we live in compensation-culture times, and a spectator might sue if anyone slips and breaks a leg.

Talking of leg breaking, did you see that wild tackle by Paul Pogba on Hector Bellerin at Arsenal last Sunday?

It is not often we can say that today's other northern derby, Liverpool versus Everton, is intriguing but a warm-up act for the big one 55km or so down the motorway from Merseyside.

A lunging foul, with both feet off the ground, and Pogba's right boot burying its studs into the flesh behind Bellerin's knee. It has no place in football. Pogba's belated explanation four nights later was that it was "destiny". He meant no harm, and is sad to miss the derby because United really want to win against City.

In fact, Pogba misses three games through suspension. Fellow Frenchman Bellerin survived the tackle with just bruising and scarring.

The real loss is United's. Pogba at his best is a beast of an athlete, not simply through his power, but with his surging runs, his perceptive passes, his energy and his spirit of endeavour.

The Red Devils might replace his physicality like-for-like with the similarly 1.9m plus height (and certainly no less force) of Marouane Fellaini. But whether Fellaini hustles around in that giraffe-like movement of his, or whether Ander Herrera is brought in to dog the heels of Kevin de Bruyne or David Silva, there is an imbalance in midfield without Pogba.

Statistics spell it out. With Pogba's prodigious box-to-box energy in the side, United have won seven and lost none of his eight games this season. Without him, the record is won four, drawn one and lost two.

One other thing before we leave Pogba to sit it out in the stands: His foul was not the worst thing he did yesterday week. He spoke on BBC television before the game at Arsenal, saying that he "hopes Manchester City will get some very important players injured - to make them weaker like (what) happened to us".

A player wishing physical injury on fellow professionals needs to stay away from the microphone. When Pogba returns, we might respect him for the exciting player he can be if he just concentrates on the ball.

Meanwhile, what we hope we have tonight is the class of the Manchester clubs, epitomised and separated by the different ideology of their two managers.

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola worked together as Barcelona coaches at the time when Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal were in charge there. When the time for succession came, Mourinho (from Portugal) was never likely to get the call over Guardiola (a Catalan schooled at the Barca academy).

But in any case, it was, and is, Guardiola who pursued the full momentum of Barcelona's ethos - ball on the ground, predominantly small and nimble players, all based on passing and possession and invention in the way laid down by Guardiola's mentor, Johan Cruyff.

Mourinho unashamedly puts titles before style and, wherever he has been and won from Porto to Chelsea to Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he puts stopping the opposition high on his list of priorities.

It's a bit like the old Chinese warlord philosophy, harass the enemy until he is weary, then strike him.

City stand one victory away from equalling the Premier League record of 14 consecutive wins, set by Arsenal in 2002. A decade and a half has passed, and clearly that run has been been so hard to replicate even with all the billions spent on recruiting some of the best talents on earth.

Arsenal back then could line up Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. And much though the Gunners tried, with 33 shots on goal against United last week, they came up against a titan of a goalkeeper in David de Gea and a United who sprang so swiftly on the counter that the result down in London was a 3-1 United win.

So can the Red Devils do that to the Sky Blues tonight? Would even Mourinho dare to show the Old Trafford faithful that it isn't how you play, or how much you rely on counter attack, so long as you end up with those three precious points? We will see.

The city with the world watching in will be separated in clear red and blue lines. History wins no prizes in the present, but it runs deep here in the north-west of England where this will be the 175th derby.

United have a head start in historical terms, and a clear mathematical achievement of 72 victories against 50 by City and 52 drawn in this fixture.

It is not often we can say that today's other northern derby, Liverpool versus Everton, is intriguing but a warm-up act for the big one 55km or so down the motorway from Merseyside.

We could end up lauding de Gea again. Or drooling over Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Or watching de Bruyne flight the passes for quicksilver Silva, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero.

Or, given the personality sideshow of the managers, we might all get distracted seeing how Michael Oliver (a very decent referee) and his fourth official Jonathon Moss deal with noises off the pitch.

The derby heat will melt the snow and ice, health and safety permitting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Running afoul on and off field, Pogba is missing link'. Print Edition | Subscribe