The main flaw in Paul Pogba’s argument about Manchester United’s need to ‘attack, attack, attack’ when playing at Old Trafford was that, for the majority of Saturday’s draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers , they did.
The issue against Wolves was not so much that United were too conservative but that their attack lacked coherence – a familiar problem under Jose Mourinho, but one that also pre-dates his reign.
United out-shot their visitors by 15 attempts to 11, boasting nearly two-thirds of possession in the process, and were largely dominant once Joao Moutinho equalised. Still, they created nothing of note.
This long-standing absence of any structure to United’s attack is a valid stick to beat Mourinho with. His tendency to favour reactive football can be fairly criticised too, when an overly-cautious approach costs his team points.
Pogba, though, questioned his manager’s sense of adventure after a performance that was not an example of anti-football, just bad football. This imprecise nature of the criticism made it seem opportunistic.
His fan-friendly message – parroting the ‘attack, attack, attack’ chant – came across as a clumsy, deliberate attempt to appeal to supporters too.
The news that Pogba has been stripped of United’s vice-captaincy , confirmed by Mourinho following Tuesday’s shock penalty shoot-out defeat to Derby County, should not, therefore, come as a surprise.
And for all the many mistakes that Mourinho has made at Old Trafford, for all the criticisms that can be fairly levelled at him, this decision is the correct one.
Though Mourinho used the armband as an olive branch last month, captaining Pogba at the first possible opportunity when rumbles of discontent were heard, he cannot be undermined by the player who is supposed to act as his representative on the pitch.
Mourinho stores great value in his captains, usually sharing responsibility in the squad between a number of key lieutenants. Romelu Lukaku declared himself a ‘sergeant’ last season and would be one of several players better suited to the vice-captaincy than Pogba.
Yet Pogba was chosen in a clear attempt to ease tensions. A truce existed for the best part of a month, with no flashpoints following the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur or through the run of consecutive away victories which was maintained by an excellent Pogba display in Bern last week.
But United’s mini-revival and the suspension of hostilities between manager and midfielder was always built on that most fragile of foundations – results. And as soon as they turned, it was revealing that Pogba should be the one to breaks ranks first.
Perhaps he interpreted Mourinho’s assessment of his performance against Young Boys as damning him with faint praise and sought to strike back. In Switzerland, Mourinho had suggested Pogba’s match-winning display was down to the overall set-up and performance of the team.
The manager’s comments were measured, though, and if they were designed to act as a check on Pogba’s confidence, he hid that ulterior motive better than the midfielder hid his after the draw with Wolves .
Mourinho can justifiably feel aggrieved that the truce was broken after one bad result. Pogba has since implied that his comments were misrepresented, and almost in the same breath as confirming his demotion, Mourinho insisted that there has been ‘no fall-out’.
But pictures captured by Sky Sports lenses at Carrington on Wednesday morning – showing the two of them in a tense conversation – suggested differently.
Like with Old Trafford’s other internecine battles, it is hard not to ultimately conclude that there is plenty of blame on both sides and any supporter or interested observer would be wrong to come down strongly in either the player or the manager’s camp.
Even so, it is hard not to look at this latest episode and conclude that Mourinho was left with little choice. It should give Pogba pause for thought, too, as the club’s hierarchy is understood to think the same.