Mourinho Vs Pogba: A Dick-Swinging War in the Generation Gap

Whoever you're backing in this very public falling out will probably be determined by the decade you were born in.

by Hydall Codeen
28 September 2018, 2:59pm

Photo: Jason Mitchell / Alamy Stock Photo

There are some weeks in the Premier League where it's better to guide your weary gaze away from the glare, to dig up the stories happening beneath the surface muck raked over endlessly by Twitter, TalkSport and the tabloids, to try to tease out hidden narrative strands from a division that tends to communicate every single thought and fantasy that crosses its mind in a big, booming lexicon of come-and-get-me pleas, dressing room bust-ups, battle cries and thrown down gauntlets.

In truth, though, there's only one story in town this week, and sadly it isn't Kevin Keegan neglecting to sign Hatem Ben Arfa in 2008 or Phil Foden seeing off Oxford United in the Carabao. No: it's a story far more epochal than that, upon which the future of the global game now seems to hinge. It is Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho grimacing at each other during a training session.

The tale of these Siamese fighting fish thrust into the same Carrington goldfish bowl is gathering new soundbites and subplots by the day. The midfielder's crimes so far have been grave and numerous: Paul Pogba turned up for work in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Paul Pogba played his music too loud. Paul Pogba smiled on Instagram. Paul Pogba lost one of his diamond earrings on the training pitch and everyone had to spend ages looking for it. But perhaps the biggest crime of all, at least as far as Mourinho is concerned, seems to be that Paul Pogba is "a good player, not a special player" – something he reportedly told the World Cup winner in front of his teammates after his dispossession allowed Wolves to net their decisive equaliser at Old Trafford on Saturday.

If this row – one that's seen Mourinho swear that Pogba will never captain United again – stems ostensibly from little more than a couple of dropped points, the yawning chasm that exists between coach and player flags something that goes much deeper, for both the combatants and a watching audience of millions. To put it bluntly, it seems probable that whoever you’re backing in this very public falling out will be determined by the decade you were born in. There is the sense of a generational divide opening up in the skies above Salford, a tussle being fought between what football once was and what, in its most vainglorious moments, it now secretly most desires to be: a grown-up, millionaire Bart Simpson who's allowed to be wherever he likes on the pitch but doesn't want to accept any responsibility for whatever happens when he gets there.

It is, contrary to reports, not easy to forget what Mourinho was like when he first entered English football; reminders come daily of how suave and smouldering he was, the way he put butterflies in the guts of housewives and the press corps alike with his pithy repartee and evil Chandler Bing haircut, a walking cuckold factory who always looked like he was wearing the slightly-too-big suit of whichever overworked husband he’d raided the wardrobe of that morning. He was, as they say, the future once, or at least a very potent version of the present, an ace face as at home in the pages of GQ as he was in the horrifying nightmares of Philippe Senderos. He was a man with a winning plan and no qualms about the collateral damage wrought in executing it.

Now: not so much. With each passing day, the bags under his eyes look more like crop circles, the hair has surrendered its colour and lustre, he looks like he gets dressed in a bin. It's widely claimed that Mourinho's football has gone out of fashion in a tactical sense, too, but that feels like a slight misconception – it's more that the brand of football his tactics worked so effectively to negate has fallen from vogue. As tiki-taka has died at the hands of a more energetic and vertical elite style of play, so Mourinho's antidote has faltered with it, an antibiotic that no longer works the germ.

There is often the sense that the game is passing Pogba by, too, which seems ludicrous for a man who just this month was planting kisses on the World Cup trophy before an adoring Stade de France. That he can still be read as a talent untapped is testament to just how much promise people see in him, how overwhelming the desire is for Pogba to operate as an omnipotent weather machine of a central midfielder, one who's able to bend the atmosphere to his will, heating things up, cooling things down, parting the clouds and conjuring the wind to his back. As things stand, he’s more of a stray lightning bolt, doing impressive things without consistency, a player whose best acts feel built for a young fanbase preoccupied with experiencing the game in clipped, multi-screen social media moments than across the full attritional span of 94 minutes. Pogba's assist for Fred's opener against Wolves on Saturday was arguably the finest individual touch of the season so far, a ball falling out of the sky turned into a cushioned reverse pass with perfect spin. Yet he rarely, if ever, has offered that smothering quality that people so desperately want to see from him in a United shirt, dominated a match in the manner of a Vieira, a Keane, a Rijkaard, a Gerrard.

If the frustration from the manager's side appears to centre on Pogba's status as a "good, but not special" player, it doesn't seem like too much of a leap to assume that there resides in this frustration a certain amount of self-loathing, that Mourinho might be angry at himself for his inability to help Pogba explore the outer reaches of his potential. "Special" is a loaded word when it comes to Mourinho, and Mourinho has a thing for loaded words; it surely can't be coincidence that he'd choose this one to try to taunt his player into action, especially as fans across the land rejoice in reminding him that he's no longer worthy of the status whenever the team he sends out fails to win.

Maybe the truest thing that can be said at this stage is that neither of these men are special, not right now, and by the looks of things probably never will be as long as they're bound together. The way ahead seems clearer and brighter for Pogba, who is still only 25 and surely capable of more given the right doses of carrot and stick. It's harder to see where Mourinho goes from here, and interesting that he's been compared so often recently to modern archetypes of emotionally distressed English men – to the emo teenager by David Squires, to the drunk uncle at a wedding by the denizens of Football 365, to Alan Partridge by the infinite laughing boys of Twitter – a sign perhaps that, as evidence of his limitations increases, we're finally taking him to heart.

It’s a curious thing, but in his travails Mourinho – once the handsome and cocksure invader – seems to belong more to the Premier League than he ever has before, a man at last drowning rather than waving in its choppy spume, reassuringly flawed and absorbed, as we all are, into its king-making, coup-leading chaos.