BY MUSA OKWONGA Pep Guardiola, of all people, previously had the approach that Jose Mourinho is seemingly taking in this summer’s transfer market. When looking to sign one of the world’s most gifted young midfielders in 2013, Guardiola famously gave his paymasters at Bayern Munich one simple instruction: “Thiago oder nichts,” (Thiago or nothing). Of […]
BY MUSA OKWONGA
Pep Guardiola, of all people, previously had the approach that Jose Mourinho is seemingly taking in this summer’s transfer market.
When looking to sign one of the world’s most gifted young midfielders in 2013, Guardiola famously gave his paymasters at Bayern Munich one simple instruction: “Thiago oder nichts,” (Thiago or nothing).
Of course, Guardiola secured the Spain international’s signature despite the attentions of David Moyes and Manchester United, and Thiago has gone on to become one of Bayern’s most influential players. Mourinho has now fixed his sights upon Paul Pogba with the same single-mindedness with which Guardiola pursued Thiago, and United supporters must hope for the same result.
Many watchers of football, experienced and otherwise, will come away from Euro 2016 thinking Pogba is desperately overrated. They will draw this view from the fact that he failed to impose himself regularly upon games, relying only upon flashes of genius and merely moments of inspiration.
Incidentally, one of those moments was the decisive one in France’s 2-0 win over Germany in the semifinals, perhaps the game of the tournament, as he stole the ball from the toes of Joshua Kimmich, bewildered Shkodran Mustafi, then crossed for Antoine Griezmann to put the result beyond doubt. This is the charge most often and powerfully levelled against Pogba: that he is best suited to producing highlight film, not one who can consistently dominate games.
While these critiques may antagonise Pogba, they are excellent news for Mourinho, who is a master at turning players’ grievances to his advantage. The quintessential Mourinho team was very possibly the Inter Milan side with whom he won the treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League in 2010. That side featured a core of players who were either considered overhyped or past their primes — characters such as Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Lucio, Julio Cesar and Walter Samuel. Their march to victory that year, during which they steamrollered a groggy Barcelona, often seemed to be a season-long settling of scores.
Should Pogba arrive at Old Trafford, he may well be harbouring the mother of all grudges. His relationship with the French media during Euro 2016 was notably fraught, apparently highlighted by a gesture he made towards them early in the tournament. This criticism will only have intensified given the player’s substandard performance in the final, for which Didier Deschamps’ tactical misadventures have, with a few exceptions, largely escaped scrutiny.
Pogba is often characterised as a box-to-box player, but he only truly thrives when he is given freedom. He can fulfil a disciplined tactical brief — no player can survive long in a Juventus shirt if that is not the case — but he’s at his best at the tip of a midfield three.
The clamour over Pogba’s acquisition is there simply because he is one of very few players who, if correctly deployed, has the ability to define a generation. It is very rare that such footballers become available, or that they are affordable, even to a club of United’s means.
Jose Mourinho is said to be keen on signing Paul Pogba for a record £100 million.
The last to be so, Neymar, was fought over by Barcelona and Real Madrid, precisely because both clubs knew that whoever he signed for would instantly become more dangerous. It would be difficult to find too many discerning Barcelona fans who will argue that Neymar was not worth the trouble. Neymar, it must also be remembered, was untested in Europe at the time, and regarded by many as a frail dilettante who would fail to impose himself against smarter, tougher defences. Times have indeed changed.
It is interesting that Real have seemingly balked at the fee of £100 million for Pogba, given that they were prepared to part with a similar figure for Gareth Bale — even though Bale had, at the time of his move to Madrid, achieved far less success at the club level. Pogba therefore finds himself in the curious position of having reached a Champions League and European Championship final, having been a key figure in four consecutive Serie A title triumphs, yet having his worth seriously questioned.
His range of gifts is probably unparalleled in the modern game. Mourinho, too, has ample experience of getting the very best from versatile midfielders, having worked to superb effect with Michael Essien and Frank Lampard at Chelsea.
The attraction of Pogba to Old Trafford is unlikely to be a sentimental one, given that the player has not so far shown such a streak in his short career. Instead, in the absence of a similarly eye-watering bid from Madrid, Pogba will have the chance to work under a manager who will provide both a sanctuary and a finishing school for his elite talent.
For that reason, to paraphrase Guardiola, Mourinho’s current attitude should be: “Pogba oder nichts.”
Musa Okwonga is a football author, poet, musician, broadcaster and social commentator. He is on Twitter @Okwonga.
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