For all the talk of the captain’s armband around Carrington and Old Trafford this week, a circus ringmaster’s hat may be the next appropriate piece of fashion to be discussed as the fractious relationship between Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba and manager Jose Mourinho spilled out into the open ahead of Saturday’s match’s at West Ham United.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
While the two have circled round each other to varying degrees starting almost the moment after Pogba lifted the Jules Rimet trophy with France at the World Cup – aided by the words, actions and inactions of Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola and United executive chairman Ed Woodward – this week has taken the relationship, or lack thereof, to a new level or low depending on perspective.
It began with last weekend’s 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton which ended a three-match winning streak in all competitions for United (3-1-2). Pogba set up Fred’s first-half goal but was also responsible for the giveaway that led to Joao Moutinho’s equaliser for Wolves.
United were on the back foot for much of the match against the promoted side, something Pogba noted to the BBC post match in which he said, “We are at home, and we should play much better against Wolves. We are here to attack. … When we play like (that) it’s easier for us.”
That tweaking of Mourinho’s tactics led the manager to stripping Pogba of his vice captaincy in front of his teammates on the practice grounds one day before United crashed out of the Carabao Cup 8-7 on penalties Tuesday at home to Championship side Derby County, run by Frank Lampard — one of Mourinho’s star midfielders at Chelsea.
After the loss – in which Pogba did not play as part of a prearranged plan by the two parties – Mourinho downplayed any talk of a rift while confirming his action without explanation, saying “The only truth is that I made the decision for Paul not to be second captain any more. It was exactly the same person who decided Pau was the second captain – myself. No fallout at all, just decisions I do not have to explain.”
On Wednesday, video emerged of a tense exchange between the two at Carrington, with details later coming out Mourinho was upset over an Instagram post Pogba made that reached his social media account 30 minutes after the loss to Derby County. That, however, blew over without incident when it became clear that the WiFi at Old Trafford – which English journalists all have pointed out is notoriously inconsistent – led to the delay in the video posting in what optically looked at an inopportune time.
Yet as Mourinho put out one fire, another emerged with his surprising criticism of defender Phil Jones, whose missed penalty in the eighth round consigned United to defeat and was the only attempt among the 16 by both sides stopped. After the match, Mourinho said “Going after the sixth and seventh I knew we would be in trouble with Jones and Eric (Bailly).”
While this sideshow rages on, one point Mourinho repeated Tuesday after the draw versus Wolves rang true – United currently are lacking a killer instinct to finish teams off. The red card to keeper Sergio Romero did United no favours, and it took Marouane Fellaini’s stoppage-time equaliser just to get the match to penalties.
Whether Pogba is restored to the lineup is a question only Mourinho answers. “The Special One” though has issues at both right back and left wing. For the former, summer signing Diogo Dalot appears ready to supplant veteran Antonio Valencia, whose lack of effectiveness going forward is overshadowing his steady play along United’s back four.
Up front, Alexis Sanchez was an unused substitute Tuesday night – the second time in three matches he did not play, though he was left behind for United’s Champions League opener on the artificial pitch at Young Boys. With Marcus Rashford having completed a three-match ban for violent conduct and eligible to return, Mourinho may shuffle his attackers as Tuesday goal-scorer Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard are also among the options with Sanchez and Rashford to flank Romelu Lukaku in United’s 4-3-3.
The drama surrounding Pogba and Mourinho has sucked up all the oxygen in that facing what appears to be a resurgent West Ham United squad is completely secondary. After opening league play with four losses on the trot, the Irons (1-1-4) have taken four points from their last two matches and ended Chelsea’s 100 percent run with a scoreless draw last Sunday.
In fact, it can be argued West Ham should have taken all three points, but Andriy Yarmolenko missed a wide-open header late as the Irons sorely missed the presence of injured striker Marko Arnautovic.
Much of West Ham’s resurgence can be attributed to the introduction of Declan Rice in a holding midfielder role in front of the back four. There was also a strategy to lay deeper against Chelsea, something that could repeat itself again in this match given Man United’s attacking options.
“It is obvious that we have improved, otherwise we would not have taken four points in these last two matches,” midfielder Pedro Obiang told the club’s official website. “We have to improve more to meet the expectations that we have about us. We are doing it little-by-little, week-by-week.
“The expectations with the new signings and the new coach are very big. We had a bad start and now we have to organise ourselves little-by-little.”
That organisation on the offensive side finally came to fruition Wednesday when West Ham demolished last-place League Two side Macclesfield Town 8-0 at home. Grady Diangana had a brace in his senior Hammers debut while Ryan Fredericks, Robert Snodgrass and Lucas Perez all added their first goals with the club.
“We played with intensity and we tried to continue playing in the same way,” a pleased Pellegrini said. “A lot of the time when you play against a lower league team you don’t play with the same pace, and you think you can walk to victory but we were very professional.”
Arnautovic is expected to be restored to the starting XI, with Michail Antonio the most likely candidate to make way for the Austria international. Arnautovic has combined with Yarmolenko to score all five of West Ham’s goals in league play.
Manchester United took four points in last season’s means, including a scoreless draw in the corresponding fixture. West Ham United are winless in their last five (0-2-3) in all competitions versus the Red Devils and have not scored in 358 minutes in league play against them since Diafra Sakho’s goal a 1-1 draw Nov. 27, 2016.
West Ham have just one win in their last 19 league matches (1-5-13) against Manchester United, a 3-2 victory at Upton Park on May 10, 2016. The Irons, though, are 1-4-2 in the last seven top-flight matches between the clubs.
Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are comfortable 4/5 favourites to return home with three points. The odds of a draw at 13/5 are slightly better than West Ham pulling off a surprise win at 13/4.
Oddsmakers believe there will be goals scored as Manchester United are 7/4 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored compared to 17/5 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 15/4 odds, while an Irons win over 2.5 goals is listed at 6/1 odds and a victory for the hosts under 2.5 checks in with 8/1 odds.
Lukaku leads the line for first-goal scorers at 10/3, with Rashford getting 5/1 odds to make it 1-0 upon his return to the fold. Martial (11/2) has moved ahead of Sanchez (6/1) on United’s pecking order for the first goal of the match, and the Hammers have both Arnautovic and Chicharito listed as 6/1 odds to get the home side off to a positive start.
For those who think Manchester United can get a 1-0 lead via penalty and are willing to take a flyer on Pogba, the France international is getting 15/2 first-goal odds.
Lukaku is near even-money to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 23/20, with Rashford lurking at 17/10. Martial and Sanchez have 2/1 odds to beat Irons No. 1 Lukasz Fabianski, with West Ham strikers Arnautovic and Chicharito at 2/1.
Before all the breathless speculation about who will emerge as the winner of this cage match between Pogba and Mourinho, one thing needs to be said straightaway: This is not that big of a deal unless Pogba is dropped from the starting lineup. THEN the argument can be made about Mourinho possibly losing the plot and the dressing room.
Talk all you want about where Pogba may go in the January window in the unlikely event Woodward acquiesces to Raiola’s wishes, refresh the toteboard on the odds of Mourinho’s survival as often as you like, if No. 6 is out there Saturday afternoon, how much has really changed for Manchester United?
In some respects, Mourinho’s side have become a poor man’s Tottenham Hotspur — United are a team with a defined ceiling that right now can be argued will not be good enough to finish in the top four.
Crashing out of the Carabao Cup is in irritant mostly restricted to Mourinho because he likes pointing to silverware as proof positive he is coaching United the right way. Losing to Lampard is an additional aggravating factor. About the only certainty regarding United is they play their best when challenged — evidenced at Burnley, evidenced at Watford.
This is a team that needs to be away from Old Trafford this weekend and are fortunate enough the schedule-makers aligned in their favour.
It is too early to buy on West Ham, solid back-to-back games aside. Pellegrini played a smart tactical game against Chelsea considering he did not have Arnautovic available, and the two low banks of four removed the issue of Noble’s lack of pace that could have been a factor had the Irons tried to stand toe-to-toe with their derby rivals. There is never any shame in taking a point, but lament for failing to grab all three is understandable.
Arnautovic does return, but it will be interesting to see just how effective he is as a hold-up forward since West Ham are lacking a defined playmaker without the injured Jack Wilshire to get him the ball. The matchup on the right as West Ham attacks between Yarmolenko and Luke Shaw will be one to watch given how Manchester United are still not a completely cohesive unit at the back and rely more on De Gea’s shot-stopping skills than actual defending.
A better opponent could have caught out United on this game amid the media circus, but even with their mini resurgence, West Ham are not that side at this moment. It will be another day Mourinho keeps the wolves at bay, but whether Pogba helps is the million-pound question.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham United 0, MANCHESTER UNITED 1.