When last we updated you on the fraught situation between Manchester United manager José Mourinho and his star player Paul Pogba, the two parties were slamming their team’s performance this weekend and low-key (or in Pogba’s case, explicitly) blaming one another for the loss. In just a few short days, things have gotten demonstrably worse.
Yesterday, ahead of United’s League Cup match against Derby County, news broke that Mourinho had informed Pogba that he would never captain United again. Pogba had been the team’s second captain this season, and had worn the armband on the pitch three times in matches that the team’s main captain, Antonio Valencia, didn’t feature. The move was reported to be a direct response to Pogba’s public comments criticizing Mourinho’s coaching.
After the Derby match, which United lost on penalty kicks, Mourinho confirmed that he’d stripped Pogba of his status as second captain, though he denied there was any “fallout” between the two men. “The only truth is that I made the decision for Paul – not to be the second captain any more,” Mourinho said. “It was exactly the same person who decided Paul was the second captain – myself. No fallout at all, just decisions I do not have to explain.”
This latest decision, as well as the longer string of oddly negative and self-protecting comments we’ve seen time and again during the early parts of what already looks to be a struggle of a season for the Red Devils, has reportedly bristled the United players. An ESPN FC report, citing numerous anonymous figures close to the United locker room, claims that players are “angry and frustrated” with Mourinho’s act. The report goes on to say some believe Mourinho has lost his “ability to cajole, read and relate to his players,” once his strongest asset as a manager, and that “only a handful of players are now fully behind Mourinho.” Some choice excerpts from the article:
[...] Mourinho’s postmatch comments about his team “being in trouble” when defenders Phil Jones and Eric Bailly were left to take spot-kicks in the penalty shootout has also gone down badly, with sources telling ESPN FC the remarks were another example of the Portuguese’s negative and critical approach with his players.
One source has said, however, Mourinho is “picking fights with his players and then asking them to play for him,” with another claiming the atmosphere between Mourinho and his squad has been difficult since the players returned to preseason training in July.
Mourinho then exacerbated the situation during the summer tour of the United States with a series of critical comments about his players and the club’s transfer dealings.
A source close to a first-team member at United has told ESPN FC the player has spoken of how he believes he has regressed at Old Trafford and failed to improve under Mourinho’s management, having credited previous coaches with taking his game to another level.
In spite of this apparently wide-reaching dissatisfaction, ESPN FC reports that there is a feeling of “helplessness” in the locker room because of the United board’s staunch commitment to keeping Mourinho in charge.
If all of that weren’t bad enough, Sky Sports then put out this video of what appears to be a testy interaction between Mourinho and Pogba from training this morning:
These images are probably both the least convincing and most powerful bits of information speaking to the fractured Mou-Pogba relationship. Least convincing because it’s impossible to tell what the context is. Was Pogba legitimately giving Mourinho the stare-down treatment, or was it some attempt at a joke meant to send up the swirling reports of their disharmony? If it wasn’t a joke, what was it really about? If it was a joke, was it received as intended? It’s impossible to tell from the short, silent clip currently going around what’s really going on. Even still, the power of the images and the seductive urge to read into them exactly what we want to see—which is drama—makes the video incredibly compelling evidence of the pair’s underlying conflict, even if it’s not particularly reliable.
Update [1:24 p.m.]: Sky has released additional footage of the training ground convo. In this one, you can sort of hear the discussions going on. Sky’s subtitles make it seem like Mourinho had a problem with something Pogba put on Instagram:
As the following tweet shows, there doesn’t seem to have been much to take offense from Pogba’s recent Instagram activity:
The theory is that the clip Pogba posted of himself and a couple teammates in the stands laughing while watching yesterday’s loss to Derby was, I dunno, insensitive or something.
Something has to give here. What were once faint echoes of that infamous Chelsea campaign, in which an increasingly rattled Mourinho was ranting seemingly every couple days about his own greatness and his players’ lack of commitment right up to the point he got the axe, have now become too loud to ignore. Mourinho and Pogba are the two most important people in United’s team, and animosity between two foundational figures like that cannot last. Only winning could cure this, but United seem to lack the talent and the playing system to do that at the level that would be required.
It’s extremely difficult to see how this season can continue on the way it’s been going and for both Mourinho and Pogba to still be at the club this time next year. Which means either something has to change drastically, or somebody has to go. So scarf down all the delicious Pogbeef you can find now, because it can’t be on the menu for too much longer.