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Premier League Review: The Problem At United Isn't Mourinho Or Pogba. It's Above Them.

Premier League Review: The Problem At United Isn't Mourinho Or Pogba. It's Above Them.
By Gavin Cooney
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To the opening weekend of the Premier League, then, to see if a bastion of the competition could deal with reality after the end of a lengthy iconic managerial reign.

Arsenal, however, headed off their post-Wenger slump by indulging in a Wenger-led slump, meaning that the only element of change in Unai Emery's first game that could be interrogated was the absence of it. There remained the fist-gnawing naivety in defence, the Granit Xhaka yellow card, the aesthetic impotence of Mesut Ozil, the pre-full time exodus.

Heck, there was even an Arsene Wenger Tribute Subsection: a manager who sounds a bit like an important element of the club playing an untested teenager from the French second division. (Emery-ates just about scans if you say it slowly enough).

It was all some Twitter b****r about zippers away from being indistinct from anything we've seen in any of the last five seasons.

No, if you wanted to see a club struggling to come to terms with The New Normal, you should have turned your gaze to Old Trafford on Friday night.

Five years after Alex Ferguson's retirement, the club have traded serial contention for a new zest for sideshow.

The pall of self-induced gloom surrounding the club was briefly lifted by the 2-1 win over Leicester, only to return almost immediately with Paul Pogba's post-game comments in which he drew attention to the fact that all is not well between him and his manager.


Whether the fact that United's internecine conflicts dominate news cycles is good for the bosses of the self-professed "biggest TV show in the world" is open to debate, but it is enervating on a playing level as City and Liverpool sail serenely out in front of them, attracting the kind of good PR that Mourinho seems to despise so intensely.

Jose Mourinho's third seasons at clubs often lend themselves to King Lear: it is easy to imagine a senescent, haggard Jose meandering and raving during a wild storm, bewailing the betrayal of his methods and his abandonment by "the three rats".

This time around, however, if Mourinho is to find himself sick in fortune and play the necessary villain, it will all be by Woodwardian compulsion.


Woodward and United's post-Ferguson policy has been to chuck money at whomever and whatever their manager wants. This made sense under Ferguson, but consistently changing managers means an enormous turnover of players and attendant waste. This summer has apparently seen a change of emphasis at United, with Mourinho now told that Toby Alderweireld is too old, Harry Maguire too expensive, and Jerome Boateng too injury-prone.

Reports now claim that United are going to employ a Sporting Director to take charge of transfers, which is probably a prudent way of hauling United's on-field operations in line with their commercial activity.

While this all makes sense, it casts Mourinho as a relic of United's old way of doing business, hired as less of a Head Coach than a kind of grisly auteur, there to do whatever it took to win the league.


This scattergun approach has left an imbalanced squad of a plethora of fabulous attackers and some decidedly stodgy defenders, and this is exposed by Mourinho's dogma. His ceding of possession exposes the weakest part of his team and blunts the strongest, leaving them overly-reliant on David De Gea, who had to make more saves last season than Watford's goalkeeper.


That Mourinho has done this is totally unsurprising as that is his belief and that is his style, and something that United knew when they appointed him.

In the middle of it all is the confounding figure of Pogba.


To Woodward's new way of doing business, Pogba is United's perfect player: enormous marketability, talent, and potential sell-on fee should things go that far.

Such is the muddle United find themselves in, the manager with whom they are incompatible is also incompatible with their most important player, to the extent that it now appears that Pogba wants to leave.

Perhaps it is all a power play from Pogba and his agent Mino Raiola for more money, but for this the club should take responsibility. Alexis Sanchez' wages appeared in The Guardian last week: £391,000 a week, along with a £75,000 bonus for every game he plays and an annual £1.1 million loyalty bonus. A man as enterprising as Raiola is unlikely to ignore such room for wage inflation.


If Pogba wants to leave out of a genuine unease with his manager, however, then again the club should be responsible as it is difficult to foresee Pogba ever truly performing for Mourinho in the biggest games.

As evidenced in the Champions League against Sevilla, Mourinho believes he lacks the discipline to play as a two-man midfield in front of the defence, a tactic Mourinho will almost certainly deploy against the likes of City and Liverpool this season. The latter make hay 'between the lines': it is the area of the pitch Roberto Firmino does his best work, and now have the added strength of Naby Keita's ability to attack that space. City, meanwhile, have two of the Premier League's greatest-ever players in that position in David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

While Pogba impressed at the World Cup in that position, with Mourinho praising his "not doing silly things" against Belgium when France shifted to clinging on to their lead, he did so alongside N'Golo Kanté, a man who has won two league titles with a kind of indefatigable genius that shrouds deficiences alongside him. (Danny Drinkwater).


Excelling alongside Kanté should be seen as an entirely different achievement; like scoring goals in the Eredivisie as opposed to the Premier League.

Pogba has traditionally shone on either side of a midfield three, as he did against Leicester, but if he wants to do so in the biggest games he needs to work under someone other than Jose Mourinho, as his manager will revert to what he knows best when the pressure comes on.

After Ferguson left, it was widely accepted that the plum job at United was to be the guy after the guy after Ferguson, with David Moyes lumbered with the sacrificial gig of dealing with the turmoil of change.

While Mourinho desperately wanted to be Ferguson's successor, in hindsight it was construed as a good thing that he avoided being the fall-guy and came to the job later.

Now, with the club not looking big enough for both Mourinho and Pogba, the deepest irony is that the real change at United has only just begun, and it looks like Jose will be the man to lose out.

Stray Observations 

  • Performance of the Weekend goes to whoever picked that new camera angle at Anfield. Much more like it.
  • Has the standard of kits ever been so bad across the League? Spurs togging out into a North London-embossed Teal Green is a new low.
  • Maurizio Sarri found a way around the smoking ban at the John Smith stadium - spotted chewing cigarettes on the touchline.
  • There has been very little change in terms of TV setups, although Sky have decided to find a couple of bigger in-stadium studios.
  • Match of the Day is relatively unchanged, bar the relocating to a touch screen for a bit of analysis on Liverpool/West Ham, where Jermaine Jenas excelled.

Tweets of the Weekend 

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