Paul Pogba has a chance to make amends on Saturday, not for his woeful performance against West Brom, but the one at Tottenham in January that led to serious questions being raised.
United went into the Jan. 31 encounter at Wembley having won their previous five games but, having gone behind after 11 seconds, were never in the game and lost 2-0. It was reflective of their season overall: A decent run followed by a daft hiccup.
Losing at Spurs isn’t like being beaten at Huddersfield or Newcastle, as has also happened to Jose Mourinho’s men in 2017-18, but United have been battered in their last three Premier League visits to Tottenham. Fans were more optimistic in January, their team having beaten Tottenham at home and Arsenal away earlier in the season, but it was false hope.
Pogba was taken off after an hour, his performance paling by comparison to those of opponents Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Eric Dier. There were empty seats in the United end well before the end, with supporters appalled by a performance that, apart from 10 minutes after Spurs’ early goal, was shambolic.
Almost three months later and approaching the conclusion of Pogba and Mourinho’s second seasons at United, the relationship between them remains an unwanted distraction. They are better together, getting on for the greater good of the team and each other but, if Pogba plays badly, then he should be dropped like any player.
Fans remain unsure of the Frenchman’s playing position. At Spurs, he was told to play in a defensive midfield role. It didn’t work. On New Year’s Day, he had been effective in a more advanced position at Everton, though the Goodison Park club are nowhere near as good as Mauricio Pochettino’s team.
Pogba has huge talent and is a popular member of the dressing room, but he should be a standout player, like Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez for Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos for Real Madrid.
Despite having all the attributes to be the best midfielder in the world, though, he’s nowhere near that level. He is only 25 and there have been moments, glimpses of his best. Fans want him to do well and, like his game-changing performance at Manchester City recently, are delighted when he does.
One statistic that gets lost is that Pogba has 10 assists in 23 league games this season. That is probably because he makes setting up goals look easy; Romelu Lukaku’s effort at Bournemouth was a prime example. (Lukaku’s 27th of the season is only one behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s total last year, which shows how well Lukaku has done and how brilliant Ibrahimovic was.)
Pogba put in a good performance in the win at the Vitality Stadium and was aided by having the industrious and intelligent Ander Herrera behind him. Herrera’s pass, which led to Chris Smalling’s opener, was sublime and the Spaniard also launched the move for United’s second, which saw Anthony Martial flick the ball to Pogba to make a driving run.
There seemed to be the possibility of a fruitful midfield partnership, yet Herrera has started only 10 league games this campaign. He doesn’t have Pogba’s talent but is happy to play a supporting role at United and is effective in a role that, on Tuesday, requires him to make more tackles — five — than any other player.
Almost every player has had decent — even great — games at times this season, but consistency — for individual players and the team overall — is a problem, as Mourinho rightly pointed out after the Bournemouth game: “No doubt about Man City’s quality and in any circumstances they would win this title. But we could have had 10 more points.”
Bournemouth tripped up Louis van Gaal’s United in 2015, but Mourinho’s men have won on both occasions they have visited the league’s smallest club, where fans sing to the travelling support that “we support our local team.” Bournemouth sell out their 11,400 capacity home and have been an undoubted success in recent years, yet had an average attendance of 5,881 as recently as 2012.
United have a chance to reach the FA Cup final on Saturday, though the semifinal will be like a home game for Spurs, whose players are more used to the stadium, the pitch, the atmosphere. That half of Wembley will be packed with United fans can make a difference, but only a better display on the pitch from Pogba and Co. will see them get through.
The team have stayed in southern England and will train in London, while most of their fans face another long journey south. The team’s three furthest domestic away games — Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Brighton — have all been on weekday evenings this season.
All 34,000 of United’s tickets have been sold and Saturday will see the biggest travelling support of the season so far. They won’t care if Pogba dances on social media and dyes his hair in Spurs’ colours — he’s more professional than some of his critics realise — as long as he plays as well as in his last two away games.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.