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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

United look divided as Paul Pogba's poor performances deepen Jose Mourinho gloom

The Thursday column

The conflict between Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho spells trouble for Manchester United
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Something peculiar happened this week. I felt a little shred of sympathy for Jose Mourinho. In a world in which so many humans suffer such appalling pain, poverty and oppression it is bordering on obscene to feel remotely sorry for the arrogant Manchester United manager.

By the modern measures of wealth and fame he is as successful as anyone on the planet, and he is largely to blame for the mess he is making of things at Old Trafford.

His inability to compete with clubs such as Manchester City and Liverpool is a consequence of bad recruitment, negative tactics and an inability to curb his enormous, throbbing ego.

Indeed he is lucky his arrogance is still viewed as charisma by many people in the football media, preventing him from getting the kind of criticism for United’s poor Premier League performance levels since he joined the club that they warrant. 

But where his conflict with Paul Pogba is concerned it is just about possible to have some sympathy with him, because the Frenchman’s conduct is another key factor behind United's failure to make up the ground they have conceded to their domestic rivals since Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign ended.

I always thought David Beckham would go down in history as United’s most overrated player, but Pogba is running him close. His reputation is poles apart from the reality of what he produces on the pitch and yet it seems he feels he has earned the right to act as though the club would collapse if he left. It wouldn’t.

Sure, there are short spells in matches when he looks the part, but he is simply not as good as his media profile would have you believe. He doesn’t run games from start to finish, nor does he terrify or bewilder opponents as properly world-class players do.

And, unlike so many of his superior predecessors in the dressing room, he does not put the club’s prosperity first.

Some will see his friction with Mourinho as a laudable attempt to halt the malaise, not least in his desire for United to show more willingness to attack, as when they held the advantage against Wolves on Saturday before sitting back and conceding an equaliser.

But he is not sufficiently influential as a player to go around questioning tactics and creating disruption in the process, particularly when a move to Barcelona seems his overriding motive.

I’d love him to go there. He might shine in some of the easier La Liga assignments the biggest Spanish clubs regularly face but I am not remotely confident he would boss the big games and it may well be that United would actually thrive without him.

Team spirit, as I have said repeatedly, is the most underrated attribute in football and United’s, for so long their chief weapon under Fergie, has mostly evaporated.

Mourinho has to shoulder some responsibility for that but Pogba is not helping matters and it will be interesting to see which of the pair, if either, are still there come the end of the transfer window.

The Portuguese is favourite for the sack race and it is hard to see beyond him as it stands. If things do not improve fast then the Old Trafford top brass will have to act fast because a failure to make the Champions League next season will blow another hole in the budget and make the task of catching up with their north-west rivals even harder.

They know, however, that jettisoning Mourinho carries the risk of handing victory to player power, something that could make life difficult for whoever takes over.

But a top-four place for United is odds-against and, indeed, the whole notion of the big six requires redefining.

In the last ten Premier League seasons what are commonly referred to as the big six have been the top six (in whichever order) four times. In another four seasons, five of them finished in the top six while twice two of the sextet finished outside the top six places. The only five clubs to have broken their stranglehold have been Leicester, Southampton, Everton, Aston Villa and Newcastle.

But Sporting Index expect United and Arsenal to finish around 17 points behind City and Liverpool and it is no longer accurate to refer to a big six as if they are all on a par with one another.

Indeed it cannot be taken for granted that the top six will not have a new member at the end of the season, with Wolves looking the prime contenders if that is to happen.

They have continued the stunning progress they made in the Championship last season and there are worse 8-1 chances out there than the Old Gold to barge their way into the top six come the end of the campaign.

They play superb football and, equally importantly, their players and manager show a togetherness that is currently sadly lacking at Old Trafford. Goodness knows what Fergie makes of the whole undignified mess.

Tiger's Tour triumph lived up to the hype

There may be the odd person who is so perfect that they can sit in judgement on the rest of us and say Tiger Woods’s comeback is tarnished by his sins, but I’d imagine most people who follow golf regarded his victory in the Tour Championship last week as one of the most sensational sporting moments of the 21st century.

To experience the crowds roaring with delight after every putt was sunk, to see people swarm up the final fairway as the hero of the hour strode towards the green, and to hear his voice break with emotion as he reflected on his achievement was magnificent. 

If we are lucky there will be similar scenes in Paris when the Ryder Cup is contested this weekend but the chances are the golfing moment of the year took place a week before most people anticipated.

I like the Ryder Cup but it has become the most overhyped event in all of sport, a game of golf between 24 multi-millionaires dressed up as some sort of war.

The excruciating opening ceremony, the captains thanking their wives, the weird sight of Britons putting their new-found political and economic enmity with the rest of the continent to one side for three days for the trivial matter of golf, Sky solemnly treating it like it’s something that will change all our lives forever. It’s just so toe-curlingly excessive.

Luckily not everyone regards it as the most important thing of all time. Dustin Johnson, for example, offered this casual assessment last week: “If we don’t play well we’ll probably lose. If we play well we’ll probably win.”

It is best viewed as an interesting diversion from the norm of tournament golf and the opportunity to win a few quid if the right betting opportunities present themselves.

And to that end I shall be having a couple of each-way cross-doubles on Jordan Spieth, Webb Simpson, Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari to be their teams’ top scorers, and I might mess around with a few in-play guesses.

But whoever wins will not change my views on the wider world, however often I am subjected to the sight of Ian Poulter and others with their eyes virtually bursting out of their sockets after they have holed a long putt.

Fans need protection from friendly fire

One of the strangest things about Britain is how its people treat health and safety with such disdain. Far from being regarded as two hugely important components of a happy society, they have been coupled together to form a phrase that is ridiculed and in some quarters reviled.

I very much enjoy being healthy and safe and applaud efforts to ensure as many of us as possible feel that way, even if that means authorities occasionally taking steps that some may construe as being slightly killjoy.

One small part of life that should be made far safer is the protection of fans sitting behind each goal before football matches start, a point that was illustrated again at the weekend when a young supporter was hit in the face by a loose potshot at goal as the players warmed up for the Sky Bet League One game between Southend and Fleetwood at Roots Hall.

Joey Barton commendably consoled the youngster by giving him a signed shirt afterwards, but the risk remains at many grounds.

Some clubs deploy a net to protect those positioned in vulnerable areas but anyone who has found themselves in the vicinity of one of the goals in good time for kick-off will know only too well that uneasy feeling of trying to drink your Bovril under the constant threat of a spherical leather missile smashing into your cup and spraying it all over your face.

Indeed I am surprised there are not more serious injuries on a regular basis as players get their eye in with a few attempted netbusters before the first whistle blows.

Hopefully more can be done before anyone suffers significant damage from a stray ball.

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I always thought David Beckham would go down in history as United’s most overrated player, but Pogba is running him close
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