Sport punditry is arguably one of the easiest jobs in the world. You delve into your playing past to analyse the present. And unless you elevate yourself to Richie Benaud, Mike Atherton or Gary Neville’s level, there’s always a temptation to play to the gallery. During his playing days, Paul Scholes revelled in his reticence. He always let his football do the talking, which made him a Manchester United midfield vanguard and arguably England’s best midfielder in the last 20 years. As a pundit, he is speaking his mind and it makes him an interesting commentator to listen to. And from a neutral’s point of view, there was nothing wrong in his Paul Pogba criticism. For a player of his playing past, it’s natural that the ‘Ginger Genius’ would give a hoot to ruffling any feathers. After United drew 0-0 at home against Southampton, this was what he said on BT Sport: “Where’s the Paul Pogba we saw at Juventus? The player they bought. He is just strolling through a game. Pogba doesn’t look fit. I wonder whether he is training properly.” Southampton are flirting with the drop zone at the moment—17th in the table with 20 points from 22 matches. Pogba looked a complete pushover against them. When United forked out the then world record fee, £89 million, to bring back the Frenchman last season, they thought about having someone world-class in their ranks. So far in 41 Premier League appearances for the Red Devils, Pogba has scored eight goals. Far too often, he has proved to be a big game bottler.
But a sulking United manager, Jose Mourinho, ignored perspective. His Scholes rant following United’s 2-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park had the intensity of a teenager, tongue firmly in cheek. “Paul (Pogba) tries to do his best all the time. Sometimes he plays very well, sometimes he plays well, sometimes he doesn’t play so well. It’s not Paul’s fault that he made much more money than Paul Scholes. It’s just the way football is. “I think Scholes will be in history as a phenomenal player, not as a pundit. I prefer to look at him as a phenomenal player that gave so much to the club that I’m proud to represent,” Mourinho said.
To start with, Scholes doesn’t need Mourinho’s certificate to prove his greatness as a footballer. He is decorated with 11 Premier League titles, four FA Cup wins and two European Cup triumphs. And jealousy! To paraphrase Mourinho, if Pogba becomes 25% as successful as Scholes as a player, he will have a pretty decent career. Fifty per cent of Scholes’ success will take Pogba closer to being a United legend.
Yes, operating from the left, Pogba had an excellent second half against Everton. But where’s the consistency? Where’s the big game impact? United didn’t lose a match when Pogba played since Chelsea last season alright, but how many big games did they win? Why did Mourinho resort to a six-man defence against Liverpool at Anfield this term despite having a big-money signing like Pogba? Just 45 minutes of fantastic football doesn’t a magician make.
The funniest part of Mourinho’s post-Everton game press conference was that he thanked United’s Class of ‘92 for their contributions to the club. Maybe he lost the plot, trying to defend an overpriced acquisition. Or maybe it was a deliberate ploy to switch the attention and guard his boys. But taking on the class of ‘92 is a dangerous game and the manager runs the risk of suffering the consequences.
Mourinho seemingly is becoming a prisoner of excuses. The Scholes rant came on the heels of his complaint over the United board’s ‘lack of spending’ in the transfer market. The club has spent close to £300 million since his arrival. United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has roped in almost every Mourinho transfer target except Ivan Perisic. It’s not Woodward’s fault that Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s football these days brings derisive laughter from the stands. Woodward couldn’t be blamed for £76-million Romelu Lukaku’s two perfect ‘assists’ to two Manchester City goals at the derby. And when the easiest chance of the game fell to the Belgian striker, he hit it straight at City goalkeeper Ederson. It’s not Woodward’s fault that Ander Herrera has regressed this season and Andreas Pereira is out on loan to Valencia, while United search for midfield creativity. United goalkeeper David de Gea—the reason why the team is still placed second—and the regular back four of Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young figured prominently during Sir Alex Ferguson’s last title-winning campaign in 2013. They all are the great man’s recruits.
But this was what Mourinho had said a few days back: “It’s (£300 million) not enough. And the price for the big clubs, the price for the big clubs is different from the other clubs. So the big, historical clubs are normally punished in the market for that history.” He added: “Manchester City buy full-backs at the price of strikers.”
Yes, Pep Guardiola has spent in excess of £350 million since his arrival in the blue half of Manchester. But he has splashed the cash with a vision. More than the 15-point gap at the top of the table, Guardiola’s team has set a football entertainment benchmark this season. City have scored 64 goals in 22 matches compared to United’s 45 from as many games. Guardiola’s team has stolen a country mile on its more fancied cross-town rivals. As a manager, Mourinho is replete with silverware. But Guardiola has made his bête noire—Mourinho’s approach towards football—outdated.