As this game kicked-off Paul Pogba’s “second coming” at Manchester United stood at 10 appearances, one goal, and no show-stopping, game-winning display.
There had been flashes of quality but little else to suggest the world’s most expensive footballer was living up to the billing. Nearly two months to the day since his first appearance of the season – a promising turn in the 2-0 win over Southampton – here was a perfect opponent to deliver against.
To be a defining factor for United against Liverpool at Anfield is precisely the kind of performance for which £93.2m was splurged on Pogba, and why José Mourinho was so keen to make him the headline summer signing.
His arrival at United caused a minor spat between the Portuguese and Jürgen Klopp. The Liverpool manager questioned Pogba’s price and voiced a hope it would not become the norm. “The day that this is football I’m not in a job any more, because the game is about playing together,” he said. “I want to do it differently. I would even do it differently if I could spend that money.”
Arsène Wegner, the Arsenal manager, spoke of similar concerns, to prompt a classic Mourinho response: “When I heard some of the comments and some of the managers criticising that, I don’t think they ever have this problem because, to have this problem, you need to be at one of the top clubs in the world. So at Man United it can happen.”
The transfer did indeed take place but so far the return on the investment has been disappointing. Part of the issue has been where the Frenchman should operate. Pogba has been in the pair of a 4‑2‑3‑1, on the left-hand side of the middle trio in a 4‑3‑3, and last night he was shifted again, placed by his manager in the No10 berth in the former formation. This meant no Juan Mata, the playmaker preferred by Mourinho over Wayne Rooney and who was pivotal in the 4-1 hiding of Leicester City in United’s outstanding performance under the new manager.
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If this means Rooney is now effectively third choice for the position, then what he saw from the bench was a tentative Pogba as the contest unfolded. There was a dink to Ander Herrera that was pretty but aimless; a run down a blind alley near Liverpool’s area which left him sprawling; a wild 25-yard shot; and a few clumsy touches that ceded possession. The plus side? A give-and-go with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the odd tackle, and that was about it.
Pogba is hardly renowned for being a ball artist whose vision splits teams open. The truth is that Mata’s absence here left this United side merely a functional unit, which may have been Mourinho’s intention. They stifled and stymied Liverpool for the greater part of the first half, until Klopp’s men gained a foothold over the closing 10 minutes.
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This, though, was just what Pogba had failed to do as half-time arrived – establish himself. All the 23-year-old did was underline Graeme Souness’s damning appraisal of him. The Scot, whose stellar career (mainly with Liverpool) makes him highly qualified to talk about accomplished midfield play, said: “Pogba may eventually be £100m worth, but right now I don’t see him anywhere near that. I see a young man who’s struggling to find his best position and best form in a team that’s struggling to find their best form.”
Yet at the interval Mourinho would have been content. His side had quietened Liverpool – and their support – and there was scant threat to their goal.
But Pogba’s contribution to this was minimal, which meant as long as United kept on level terms it might be acceptable to their manager. The sense that a footballer bought to be the present and future of United should do more remained. For a club built on the scintillating talents of George Best, Eric Cantona and Rooney to have the next supposed main-man so muted is odd.
Even when Pogba tried to shoulder-barge Jordan Henderson off the ball he came off second best. There was a scrap of encouragement when he supplied the cross from which Zlatan Ibrahimovic might have scored, but as the second half progressed the case grew for Mata or Rooney to enter as Pogba’s ineffectiveness meant United would have lost little had he been withdrawn.
As Souness also said, United are not the lean, mean machine which Mourinho’s champion sides were. This may not help Pogba but the very best players are the ones who make a difference to the side. “I don’t see him having a great understanding of the game,” the former Liverpool manager added. It may seem harsh, but on this evidence Souness’s view can be understood. Pogba’s challenge is to prove it wrong.