“I bet he is a really nice guy, but I wonder if he treats football as a bit of a joke. I wonder if he trains properly every day, that is a stab in the dark at something that could improve. I don't think he has improved since the day he arrived. I still see the same flaws in him."
Graeme Souness on Paul Pogba, September 2018
As we enter the second international break of the English domestic season, much will be made of Paul Pogba’s performances for his national side against Iceland in Thursday’s friendly and the subsequent UEFA Nations League game against Germany.
Pogba is used to the attention. It could also be argued - not least by the likes of Souness and other pundits - that he draws criticism on himself. The hairstyles, the social media dalliances, even the colour of his boots are all subject to as much scrutiny as his performances.
This doesn’t ignore the fact that the Pogba who helped France to a second World Cup triumph is a markedly different player to the one currently on display in the Premier League.
A decent return of two goals (one via a deflection) is not to be sniffed at, but more impressive than the cross-field passes or tricks and flicks was his discipline within the national team set-up. It is this aspect of his game that requires closer inspection, so rarely is it on show at Old Trafford.
So how has Didier Deschamps elicited such performances from the player where Jose Mourinho has failed? It cannot be a question of formation; Mourinho has tried every conceivable combination to unlock Pogba’s undoubted potential. The personnel around him? Playing alongside N’Golo Kante made even Danny Drinkwater look international class, but as the majority of United’s signings have been made with Pogba in mind it is hard to make a case here.
Mourinho’s conservative style is a factor. It is clear the midfielder enjoys playing on the front foot; recent comments will attest to that. This does ignore the fact that for all Deschamp’s success with Les Bleus, his preference is to play workmanlike football despite a squad glittering with attacking talent.
“When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack. That’s Old Trafford. We are here to attack.”
Paul Pogba, September 2018
Critics of Mourinho’s managerial style are not hard to come by, and the same can be said of Deschamps. What sets them apart is the atmosphere both have created in their respective set-ups.
The French manager has overseen a transformation from the debacle of 2010, and while the personnel have changed since then, the culture within the squad still requires due care and attention.
An intangible quality perhaps, but there is a sharp contrast to how Mourinho operates. The veiled media messages, the early substitutions, everything in his repertoire seems designed to keep players on their toes.
Unfortunately for him it is not just his playing style that seems dated, and it is obvious that some of his players do not respond as well as others to his methods. To which many will say, “aren’t these professional footballers? Shouldn’t they be performing either way?”
Such a view ignores the part that motivation plays in drawing consistently good performances from players, as well as perpetuating the stereotype of the precious modern footballer. While we can still hark for the no-nonsense personalities of Roy Keane and admire James Milner’s old-school work ethic, expecting every player to behave in the same way is myopic at best and negligent at worst.
Managers are known for their preferred playing styles, from the expansive football of Guardiola to the electric energy of Klopp’s heavy metal riffing. Where managers cannot afford to be so dogmatic is in their man-management, where Mourinho increasingly looks like a throwback to a bygone era.
Without generalising “the modern footballer”, it can still be argued that the old methods of motivation are no longer as effective. Hugs have replaced hairdryers; building a relationship is more important than establishing authority, which through trust then becomes implicit.
Ultimately, the main role of a manager is to get the best out of the players at his disposal, and for the likes of Mourinho this may require a change of approach that is beyond them. For Manchester United fans, and for Pogba himself, this should be of greater concern than his conservative tactical approach or his reliance on the board to fund new signings.