Last April, after Manchester United delayed City’s title celebrations for a week, Paul Pogba walked over to the United fans in attendance at the Etihad, made yappy fingers with his hands, then shook his head and slapped his badge as he walked away from the stands toward the locker room. His hair was a City-ish shade of blue at the time, and there had been rumors swirling that United had offered him to their neighbors over the January transfer window. Whether that actually happened or not, Pogba made his intentions clear: he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. Though the club has struggled slightly in the post-Fergie era, Old Trafford is the perfect place for the French midfielder. United are well-resourced, grandly ambitious organization with which he has ties through a handful of years spent on their youth teams. Pogba seems to understand this and has exercised some extra patience to make it work.
He’s allocated most of that patience to dealing with José Mourinho, with whom he has a complicated relationship. If United did indeed ask City brass if they were interested in buying Pogba last January, it was likely at the manager’s request. Mou is a pessimist at heart, and where others see Pogba’s immense talent, he sees only what his player doesn’t do despite ostensibly being able to. The two have a fundamental disagreement about which role Pogba is best suited for—Mou has given Pogba a lot of defensive responsibilities that don’t allow him to go forward as much as he would like—and dispositionally, Pogba hasn’t taken well to Mourinho’s withholding, occasionally undercutting management style.
Nothing Mourinho said this summer, after Pogba had a so-so club season and a great World Cup, was way out of line, but it was tonally disrespectful. Whenever Mou was asked about his star, he would congratulate Pogba before mentioning something sneaky-defamatory about how the World Cup allows players to focus or how Pogba committed himself completely to the team—basically implying that these are traits he doesn’t reliably exhibit at United.
Mou’s reputation as a wild interview subject speaks more to the stupefying blandness of other managers’ press-handling than anything else, but if there’s one thing that makes him stand out, it’s his habit of staging private conversations in front of cameras and tape recorders. It would be reasonable for him to take Pogba aside before this new season and tell him that if he plays for United with the passion and discipline he did for France, they might to be able to accomplish something special this season. But to say that to a reporter reads as Mourinho calling his player out rather than giving him genuine advice or instruction. He’s trying to motivate Pogba by holding him publicly accountable, but he’s also absolving himself of blame. It’s also a classic bit of Mourinho ass-covering: if Pogba has another underwhelming year, it’s not my fault. You guys know what I told him.
Now Barcelona rumors have replaced the Man City ones. With the EPL transfer window already closed, it’s unlikely United are going to sell one of their best players and roll with, like, Marouane Fellaini in central midfield, but Pogba is playing coy at the moment about what he would prefer to happen, but it’s not difficult to read between the lines of, say, this vaguely persecuted-sounding Instagram platitude, or an interview in which he alludes to people at the club who don’t trust him. Mou, for his part, seems to realize that he has been too tough on Pogba and unequivocally praised his season-opening performance against Leicester last Friday. Their connection is obviously strained. It might be repairable, especially if United have a productive season, but when things start to sour with Mou, they rarely get sweet again.
It’s entirely possible that one of them is gone by February, and it’s more likely to be Mourinho, who is entering year three at Old Trafford and tends to burn through jobs pretty quickly. (His strange running tiff with Anthony Martial is threatening to escalate into something their great grandchildren will still be feuding about.) United finished second in the EPL last year, but it was a distant second, and the team played some miserably inert soccer for long stretches. Plus Mourinho got them booted from the Champions League early with his overly conservative tactics against Sevilla. It’s sometimes astounding how quickly Mou can go from a high-achieving mastermind to a reviled firee. At United, he doesn’t have so far to fall.
He is, for what it’s worth, correct about Pogba, even if he’s going about trying to reform him as priggishly as possible. The Frenchman is an absurd athlete and technician who should be able to contribute to all phases of the game equally. If Pogba’s national colleague, Antoine Griezmann, can press relentlessly and occasionally defend as deep as his own eighteen-yard box at Atlético Madrid, as a forward, Pogba can push himself to become both a midfield hub and an able shielder of the back line. It probably steams the hell out of Mourinho that he can do it for a checkers champion like Didier Deschamps but is reluctant to at United.
If there’s a way to persuade Pogba, Mourinho’s prickly method probably ain’t it. Mou’s tragic, self-thwarting flaw is an unwavering belief that he’s right all the time, and more harmfully, the belief that being right solves everything. He doesn’t put much consideration into the way he communicates his truth, or the effect it might have on others. Consider this: Pogba’s got an ego. He has holes in his game, but he also does a lot of things really well. He just won a World Cup. He’s unlikely to be in the mood, high as he’s flying right now, to hear José Mourinho feeding him backhanded compliments through the press.
Mourinho doesn’t get this—doesn’t care to—and for that reason, he’s teetering on the edge of either unemployment or losing a star who can’t stand him. It would be beneficial for everyone involved if he could read the room for once, but eighteen years into an exceedingly successful if turmoil-punctuated coaching career, Mourinho’s not going to change. If the relationship is to be mended, Pogba must be the one who bends. He’s well within his rights refuse, which is why cataclysm at United looks increasingly certain.