Pogba ‘virus’ sums up Reds’ malaise

United man­ager’s jibe at £89m record sign­ing and fal­ter­ing form must leave fans feel­ing sick

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport / Premier League - James Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT at Old Traf­ford

Noth­ing en­cap­su­lates the deep malaise that has per­me­ated Old Traf­ford over the past year quite like the break­down of Jose Mour­inho’s re­la­tion­ship with Paul Pogba. It was al­most 12 months ago to the day that Mour­inho, fresh from see­ing his record sign­ing in­spire Manch­ester United to a thrilling 3-1 win over Arse­nal be­fore a late red card, was talk­ing about his side be­ing an in­fe­rior propo­si­tion without the France mid­fielder as he pre­pared for a Manch­ester derby in the ab­sence of his sus­pended tal­is­man.

Now Pogba, dropped for the sec­ond time in three games af­ter Satur­day’s in­sipid show­ing at Southamp­ton, is, in Mour­inho’s eyes, a “virus” who over­com­pli­cates things and is as ex­pend­able as the rest of them.

It did not take Hegel or any other great mind to recog­nise who Mour­inho had in mind when he wrote in his pro­gramme notes last night that United’s best chance of beat­ing Arse­nal here was to re­mem­ber that “sim­plic­ity is ge­nius” and “there isn’t space for peo­ple that are not ready to give it their all”. But it was still hard to be­lieve this was the same Pogba who he was gush­ing about last De­cem­ber. “Do you think I have in my team a mid­field player who can cre­ate what Pogba did for the third goal at Arse­nal?” Mour­inho said then. “We don’t have one. There was a Manch­ester United with Paul, there was a Manch­ester United without Paul and we have an­other Manch­ester United with Paul. He is a player that has an im­pact on our style of play. That’s ob­vi­ous.”

So United were asked to tackle Arse­nal without Pogba (un­til the fi­nal 15 min­utes any­way) and, while Mour­inho will have seen as much to fret over as take heart in, it was at least pleas­ing to see that, for once, the drama did not all oc­cur off the pitch at Old Traf­ford and Pogba’s omis­sion soon be­came sec­ondary to the glo­ri­ous chaos un­fold­ing on the field.

This was a bas­ket case of a game in so many ways, but it made for rivet­ing view­ing and, af­ter months of be­ing left bored and ag­i­tated, there was a per­verse plea­sure for United fans to take in such twisted en­ter­tain­ment.

There will be a more sober­ing re­al­ity when they scru­ti­nise the Premier League ta­ble this morn­ing and es­tab­lish that their side are now down to eighth, be­hind Bournemouth – yes, Bournemouth, whose £72mil­lion wage bill is less than a quar­ter of United’s – and the goal dif­fer­ence is still neg­a­tive.

The bar is now so low that Mour­inho was even talk­ing about United be­ing un­beaten in four, a run com­pro­mis­ing dis­mal draws to Crys­tal Palace and Southamp­ton and an un­der­whelm­ing win over Young Boys.

But this was a 90 min­utes that, for once, the Old Traf­ford faith­ful could fully im­merse them­selves in. United looked like they could con­cede at any point, but Arse­nal hardly rep­re­sented a ring of steel at the back ei­ther and the re­sult was a pul­sat­ing game lit­tered with mis­takes and in­ex­pli­ca­ble mo­ments, but a whole lot of fun all the same.

De­spite Mour­inho’s at­tempts to talk him up af­ter the game, this was a bap­tism of fire for United’s young right-back, Diogo Dalot, mak­ing his first Premier League start, and Mar­cos Rojo could not have had a much more event­ful first ap­pear­ance of the sea­son. It was from his free-kick that United con­jured their first equaliser but he should not have been on the pitch by the time the Ar­gentina de­fender blun­dered to gift Arse­nal their sec­ond. Ring rust alone could not jus­tify the way he dived in two-footed on Mat­teo Guen­douzi, not when he has form for that sort of thing. How he es­caped a red card was prob­a­bly the same thing Ever­ton’s Idrissa Gu­eye and Wil­fried Zaha at Crys­tal Palace were ask­ing when they felt the full force of Rojo’s studs a cou­ple of years ago. But if Dalot and Rojo both had ob­vi­ous ex­cuses for such dis­jointed per­for­mances, Ne­manja Matic is run­ning out of them.

Pogba has be­come a pop­u­lar scape­goat, but Mour­inho’s rea­son­ing be­comes harder to jus­tify when he con­tin­ues to in­clude Matic when, per­haps more than any­one of late, the Serb war­rants be­ing dropped.

An­der Her­rera was ex­cel­lent against Arse­nal, press­ing, har­ry­ing, ha­rass­ing, but he was ef­fec­tively hav­ing to do the job of two peo­ple in mid­field such were Matic’s short­com­ings.

There was a mo­ment here late in the first half when Matic, out of po­si­tion in what is be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly wor­ry­ing trend, was booked for pulling back Pier­reem­er­ick Aubameyang with the Arse­nal striker about to dart away and it summed up a night when, once again, he looked off the pace through­out.

Watch­ing Matic over the past cou­ple of months has been like watch­ing the slow, painful de­cline of a once high-qual­ity hold­ing mid­fielder and, while it is hard to know how much of it is con­fi­dence re­lated and how much of it is down to age­ing legs, he has been a shadow of his for­mer self.

In the 83rd minute, Matic was dis­pos­sessed cheaply by Alexan­dre La­cazette, only to am­ble back in the most lan­guid fash­ion. Imag­ine the re­ac­tion if Pogba had done that.

Marked man: Paul Pogba tries to beat Arse­nal’s Stephan Licht­steiner af­ter ar­riv­ing as a sec­ond-half sub­sti­tute

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