Jose Mourinho has hit back at recent attacks on Paul Pogba’s playing style at Manchester United, insisting the Frenchman had more potential than most midfielders in the world.
The 24-year-old picked up widespread criticism after he was taken off during Man United’s 2-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last week.
Pogba’s subsequent exclusion from the starting XI for United’s win over Huddersfield Town three days later prompted further questions surrounding his approach on the pitch.
But Mourinho, when asked about Pogba once again ahead of the visit to Newcastle, hit back at those commenting on his style.
“Paul had a very professional behaviour,” he said. “This week was not different to what Paul is every week. He works well, he’s a good professional He likes to train. I’ve never had a single problem with him. He likes to train.”
“I was laughing over the past week because I heard and watched, read a few things, and I’m not English but I think I understand English enough when you want to say box to box.
“But with some comments from some important people in football I got a little confused.
For me box to box means box to box. You have to be good in this box and have to be good in that box.
“It means you have to defend well in this box, the physical condition and desire and stamina to go until the other box. In the other box you have to be good at scoring, creating, heading and so on.
“And when your team loses the ball you have to go to the other box. Now I’m confused when some people say box to box has to play free of defensive duties. That’s not a box to box. That’s a box in the box and stay in that box. Don’t move from that box!
“I think this country produced a lot of box to box players. I had the pleasure to coach some of them, but nowadays with some pundits, some agents, some family members, the concept of box to box is changing a little bit.
“It looks like we are going to a different concept. Box to box are not my words. I heard it for the first time in 2004 when I arrived. For me, with my Portuguese and trying to translate to the English I
just think midfield players.
“For me Paul is a midfield player. He’s not a left back, he’s not a striker. When people ask his best position: he’s a midfield player. It depends on the tactical system but he will always be a midfielder.
“Then with so many opinions, and we are in a world of opinions, people can get confused. There is no confusion between me and Paul. It’s difficult to play a midfielder with more potential than Paul.”
Mourinho received a similar question regarding Pogba last week and didn’t really answer it. This time, however, he wanted to make a point, and it wasn’t really about his star man at all.
The 55-year-old doesn’t see Pogba playing poorly whilst the majority of those watching spew over his languid, free-flowing and, yes, occasionally costly approach on the ball. What he sees, in effect, is the imposition of English standards on how midfielders should play and a vitriolic response when Pogba – how dare he – doesn’t satisfy the demands of our footballing culture.
And what he is also implying, albeit subtly, is that such a worldview is wrong, and that, really, to tell a midfielder of Pogba’s natural ability to be more ‘box to box’ and ‘tackle’ more is nothing short of laughable – and the prime reason why nothing ever changes after England fall short at a major competition.
To put it bluntly, our footballing language – the way we understand the beautiful game – is caveman-esque in comparison to others. Long balls, second balls, target men, fixed positions. These are staples of our very outlook on the game and perhaps we should start questioning whether they really do constitute the final answer.
Xabi Alonso, for example, once stated that it surprised him that English crowds admire tackling, which is deemed a recurso – or last resort – in Spanish football, whilst simultaneously growing frustrated at a player who applies pausa, an ability to put the breaks on, feint, and leave the onrushing opponent ten yards away.
In Italy, a player does not play a position but rather their role (ruolo), and managers will often discuss how a player has “interpreted their role” after the game. Passing and possession isn’t measured by numbers and is instead referred to as fraseggio, which literally means ‘phrasing’- a term used to describe musical expression and symphony.
I could go on. Football is interpreted differently by different cultures – just like anything, really – and the reason Pogba will never be appreciated fully in this country is strictly because he hails from a very different type of footballing education.
And, frankly, the fact that he doesn’t align with this country’s hopelessly backward definition of how to play the game is not his problem in the slightest.