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Premier League DARTS, Week 27: Manchester United's Paul Pogba problem

Paul Pogba had his worst game in a Manchester United shirt in a 1-0 loss at Newcastle. (Getty)

Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …

Is everything you’re about to read an overreaction? Yeah, probably. Oh, but it could be worse. Much worse. Alternative versions of the above headline included words like “broken.” Because the Paul Pogba situation at Manchester United is without much precedent. It’s strange. Strange in the worst of ways.

You have likely heard or read about Pogba over the past 14 days. And chances are, what you heard or read wasn’t hyperbolic. Because the endlessly talented French midfielder was a liability two weeks ago against Tottenham. He was absent that weekend against Huddersfield. And this past weekend … ugh.

We’re about to discuss this past weekend. We’re about to engage in some speculation, most of it healthy, some of it perhaps irresponsible. In many ways, it’s all an extension of the unfair criticism Pogba has received throughout his 18 months at Old Trafford. It’s just that now, the extensive critiques and the worry are a bit more warranted. Sunday was that bad.

1. Pogba’s no good, very bad afternoon

Sunday, of course, was a 1-0 loss at Newcastle, for which Pogba was far from the only one at fault. But the following is a GIF summary of his first 31 minutes alone. They were ugly.

Pogba was soft on his feet, and slow to get back to them:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

He was sloppy:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

He was timid:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

He lacked focus, and his reactions alarmingly late:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

He was weak in the challenge:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

OK, this is getting ridiculous. We’re going to have to go to a second subhead …

2. More Pogbad

We’ve covered the most frustrating examples. But there were befuddling ones, too. A player typically brimming with flicks and tricks and awe-inspiring passes seemingly had all the audacity behind them sucked out of his body …

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

… and the otherworldly technical ability sapped as well:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

Maybe all of this is overdramatizing Pogba’s display. Even the world’s best have off days. But man, it sure looked like something wasn’t right.

3. The substitution

Jose Mourinho pulled Pogba once again after 65 minutes. The Frenchman had been partially culpable on Newcastle’s goal – more on that later – but Mourinho had already readied Michael Carrick on the touchline. This wasn’t about the goal.

There had been pre-match speculation that Pogba had picked up an injury during the warmup, but it wasn’t about that either. Mourinho dispelled those rumors. “No, no, no problem,” he said when asked about Pogba’s health.

This was a tactical substitution, the second in three games. In the third, Mourinho had made the (supposedly) tactical decision from the start. All three decisions, in one way or another, are problematic.

4. Who does Mourinho want Pogba to be? Andrea Pirlo?

Mourinho’s explanation for the substitution was an enlightening one: “I wanted a better way to come out in the first phase against a side that was defending in a very compact block,” he said. “I was trying that with the simplicity of Michael Carrick, because he tries to make everything simple.”

And therein lies the problem. Mourinho, it seems, wants a Carrick, or an Andrea Pirlo, or a Xabi Alonso next to Nemanja Matic in midfield. He wants a player who can provide playmaking ability and structure at the same time.

Pogba isn’t incapable of providing that. But casting Pogba as Carrick is a bastardization of his talent. If confined to that role, he’s unable to provide so much more.

5. Mourinho pulls in the reins

Pogba knows he can provide so much more. And that appears to be a part of the problem. For years, he did provide more. He played without a leash at Juventus, and even at times since his move to Manchester.

It’s not that he’s automatically restrained by the position next to Matic, either. As I wrote back in November, the simplified description of United’s formation was deceiving:

Nominally, [Pogba is] a defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. But we’d be better served calling it a 4-1-P-3-1. The P stands for Pogba. He can join either of the 1s or the 3 when necessary. He’s the deep-lying playmaker who single-handedly cycles the ball from sideline to sideline. He’s also the second striker who gets in the box to occupy defenders. He’s basically everything in between as well.

But his adventurousness was one of a few reasons United’s midfield has been so disconnected and uncharacteristically porous. United’s defensive record, by Mourinho standards, has been horrific (31.7 xGA, fifth in the EPL, closer to West Brom than Liverpool).

And finally, in the Tottenham game, Mourinho snapped.

We’ll never know the contents of that fiery touchline debate during the second half. But surely they were tactical. And surely they had to do with United’s lack of control in midfield. Mourinho needed to rein Pogba in. But that, in a way, has only exacerbated things.

6. Pogba’s frustration

The issue is that Pogba seemingly struggles to flip off switches for certain parts of his skill set while keeping others on. It has to be something mental. Toss in any effects from the spat with Mourinho, and the subsequent benching, and Pogba’s inadequate performance Sunday is significantly less baffling.

Pogba has said he prefers to play with more attacking responsibility; he prefers freedom. If a manager refuses to play him higher up the field, (possibly) retracts that freedom, butts heads with him during a match and then humiliates him by dropping him for Scott McTominay … well, he gets this:


7. So, what now?

*Whispers* — The less-than-ideal but obvious solution to all of this is to play Pogba as a 10.

8. Lukaku’s role in Newcastle’s goal

The Newcastle goal was the foundation for a good amount of Pogba criticism. And yes, he blatantly shied away from an aerial duel. At the same time, he had two men to mark at the back post because a teammate spaced out.

United is well-drilled on set-piece defense, and Romelu Lukaku is a key piece of the equation. He’s excellent in the air. But as Jonjo Shelvey stood behind a Newcastle free kick, Lukaku curiously remained by the halfway line. Perhaps he didn’t realize Shelvey was about to hoist the ball into the box?

Anyway, his teammates were shouting at him. Watch Ashley Young below. Lukaku’s response was to jog back, without the urgency necessary to pick up one of Pogba’s two men at the back post.

And once the ball was served, Lukaku mistakenly thought his job was done. He fell asleep at the edge of the penalty area. Matt Ritchie, anything but asleep, darted behind him and won the game.

9. Relevant facts

Paul Pogba cost $129 million. Romelu Lukaku cost $105 million. Jose Mourinho just signed one of the richest managerial contracts in soccer history.

10. Um, did a Premier League broadcast air male genitalia?

You probably don’t want to click on this. But you definitely will.

Previous DARTS: Week 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 15 | 16 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 26

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.