Paul Pogba started on the bench for Manchester United’s clash with Sevilla on Wednesday.
This wasn’t Huddersfield at home. It wasn’t one of those predictable occasions at Old Trafford when Jose Mourinho could depend on a Manchester United win and drop Paul Pogba to the bench, as he did at the start of the month.
This was the last 16 of the Champions League away to Sevilla in Spain. United’s first appearance at this stage of the competition in four years and one of their biggest games of the season.
So when the news was confirmed an hour before kick-off on Wednesday night that Pogba would only be a substitute at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and young Scott McTominay would play instead, Mourinho knew exactly what kind of message this would send out.
United’s £89million record signing kept out of the team by a young man making only his second Champions League start.
Pogba may have got on after 17 minutes when Ander Herrera limped off injured, but this was still a chastening experience for the Frenchman.
The Manchester United manager knew exactly what kind of message his call would send out
It has not been an easy month for Pogba. Left on the bench twice, substituted twice, he is out of form and seems to have been unsettled by the arrival of Alexis Sanchez.
At one point on Wednesday night, the two men even appeared to become embroiled in a heated exchange before settling their differences.
Has Pogba been getting too big for his boots at Old Trafford? Is this Mourinho laying down the law?
Or is the United manager genuinely struggling to get the best out of one of the world’s top stars because he lacks the discipline and diligence that players like McTominay bring to the team?
On Saturday, when United played Huddersfield again, this time away in the FA Cup, he was unable to use Pogba in his preferred role on the left-side of a 4-3-3 due to illness.
On Wednesday night, Mourinho had the choice and left him on the bench.
‘You always go to the one who doesn’t start,’ he said when quizzed about the decision before kick-off, not for the first time declining an opportunity to speak more positively about Pogba.
‘Last Saturday, Paul was unable to play. We believe this is the kind of game where we need players to be 100 per cent.
‘Paul gave us some doubts by not playing, by his own decision. He was not feeling good.’
Maybe Pogba was paying the price for phoning in sick on Saturday morning and then returning to training just 24 hours later.
After all, Herrera went straight back into the starting line-up alongside McTominay and Nemanja Matic on Wednesday night despite not playing since the end of last month. It appeared to backfire when he went off early on.
By then, Pogba’s omission was already the main topic of debate in the BT Sport studio.
‘Pogba is big enough to take it on his shoulders,’ said Frank Lampard, a favourite of Mourinho’s at Chelsea. ‘Mourinho wants to shock him and get a reaction.
‘For £90m, you want to get the best out of him. But you look at the best teams. They all have an urgency to get the ball back. You cannot have a passenger.
‘You have to say “it might not be your best attribute, but you at least show urgency and get in position”. It’s awareness and effort. There are basics for that position; a desire to run, and an awareness of what’s around you.’