It escaped nobody’s attention that Paul Pogba struggled during Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal. In fact that’s something of an understatement: Pogba looked lost, uncertain and unable to influence the game as 10-man United tried to overhaul the best team in the country.
Most observers agreed that the Frenchman was poor, but if you prefer to rely on statistics then the case is equally sound: Over the 90 minutes Pogba had one shot, which was off target, mislaid 25 percent of his passes, made two tackles and didn’t create any chances. By most subjective and objective standards, Pogba had a bad game. However Jose Mourinho, never a man to be predictable or bend to the consensus, did not concur.
“The players were phenomenal but Pogba was by far the best player on the pitch. He was a giant on the pitch,” Mourinho said after the game, before throwing in a customary pre-emptive dig at those pundits who might be critical of his midfielder. “The specialists will say a lot about him and it comes from envy. They will never ever earn 10 percent of what he does.”
Taken entirely at face value, even allowing for the rich tapestry of opinion on which football thrives, Mourinho’s statement was at best optimistic, at worst delusional. But as we should probably know by now, face value is not something that should often be applied to Mourinho.
The first mistake is assuming that Mourinho was actually talking to the press and the public. While his statement was made in front of cameras and journalists, really he was talking to Pogba.
This is a player who looked tired, bereft of confidence and is trying far too hard. That suggests a man under pressure, fully aware of his reputation, his £89.3 million world record transfer fee and the criticism that may come his way. With all of that in mind, a public pepping up seems like a perfectly sensible thing for Mourinho to try.
Mourinho might not believe Pogba was any good against Chelsea — in fact, he almost certainly didn’t, and tried to head off the criticism he knew was coming by going to the other extreme. This may have been to reassure his player; or it could be the old trick of making himself the lightning rod to take the pressure away from the squad. In any case, he’s certainly not under any obligation to give his honest opinion, particularly if he thinks the alternative might help his team.
Pogba might not even really believe Mourinho, but that doesn’t matter enormously. A professional footballer must strike a delicate balance in terms of what he listens to from others. Too much, and his mood could sway too far. Too little, and he might not learn anything. The most sensible compromise is to listen to one’s manager, teammates, close friends and confidants, and ignore the rest as best you can.
However, all of this does jar a little with the way Mourinho has publicly spoken about other struggling players this season. His early handling of Henrikh Mkhitaryan appears to have largely worked (whether by accident or design), while his pointed criticism and omission of Luke Shaw has seemed remarkably harsh, even if the left-back hasn’t exactly been a stellar performer either.
But a good man-manager recognises what works with different players. Some, as the old cliche goes, react better to criticism and others to praise. Mourinho’s history of forging good relationships with his players suggests he has a decent idea of what he’s doing in this respect.
The notable and obvious caveat there is that he certainly used to enjoy good relationships with his players, and there is recent evidence that his powers have faded in that respect. Mourinho might be wrong: he might demoralise Shaw and fail to inspire Pogba, and if that is true then it will serve as further confirmation that he is a manager past his best.
Pogba presents a problem for Mourinho: he’s clearly a top talent and key cog in his midfield, but he is currently underperforming. The reasons for that might be multi-layered, and almost certainly include how Pogba is being used in the United team, as opposed to Juventus.
But one big and obvious reason why the world’s most expensive player isn’t performing like he used to is that his confidence is shaken. By praising him in an exaggerated manner, Mourinho is trying to reverse that. It might not work, but it’s worth a try.