It was the definition of a no-win game. Excel and he would be labelled the world’s costliest flat-track bully. Flounder and the criticism would mushroom. Instead, Paul Pogba contrived to find a different form of defeat. If the issues in Manchester United’s midfield are caused by the Frenchman at Middlesbrough on Sunday, the chances are it will not be his fault.
As United marched on in the Europa League, Pogba hobbled off, seemingly hamstrung. Jose Mourinho’s task changes. Instead of solving a problem like Pogba, the Frenchman’s probable absence threatens to cause a problem.
If his nemesis was N’Golo Kante on Monday, here it was Denis Terentyev, the Rostov right-back who Pogba tried to sprint past. A sudden surge seemed to prompt the injury. A huge workload may be another cause. If the watching Sir Alex Ferguson picked Pogba too rarely, Mourinho may have selected him too often. This was his 45th game of the season which, to put it another way, is 11 more than Chelsea have played.
It prompted the question if United’s exertions in their interminable Europa League run will come to cost them in the Premier League, thus exacerbating their need to win the continental competition. Theirs has been a draining campaign and Mourinho rotates less than many of his peers, as marginalised players like Luke Shaw and Bastian Schweinsteiger can testify to their cost. Injuries and ill-behaviour have coalesced at a pivotal period, with Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended for the trip to Middlesbrough.
A season is becoming a war of attrition, a test of reserves of energy, spirit and determination. A 1-0 win over Rostov was a microcosm, a game when United ploughed onwards, not always hugely convincingly but doing enough to prolong their participation.
Now a team who seemed a star vehicle are stripped of the two who top the bill, in Pogba and Ibrahimovic. The sense is the Frenchman will leave a void. In the respect that no-one remotely resembles a direct replacement, Pogba is irreplaceable; if others had that range of attributes, he might have been cheaper. A leaderless Middlesbrough side should face a second-string midfield of Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini, shorn of pace; United, once again, will look to make do.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: United may have lost Pogba but found a new way of playing