When will Jose Mourinho build properly around star Paul Pogba?
After a few poor performances from Paul Pogba recently, it's no surprise that the player has now been linked to a move away from Manchester United, with speculation suggesting the midfielder isn't happy at the club. Pogba is a star player, and the supporters would like to see Jose Mourinho build his team around the midfielder. Given the weaknesses of the squad elsewhere, Pogba has largely been sacrificed and forced out of position to accommodate the manager's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
It's no secret that 4-3-3 would suit Pogba better and would allow him to shine as he did at Juventus. Yet supporters have been left baffled by Mourinho's decision to keep playing Pogba in a deeper role, as part of a midfield two alongside Nemanja Matic and where the best qualities of his game can't be seen. This confusion is only growing greater after United enjoyed one of their best performances of the season using the 4-3-3 formation away to Everton last month. Pogba had a great game, and United left Merseyside 3-0 winners.
Pogba had the option to sign for Real Madrid in the summer of 2016 but instead preferred a return to United, claiming he had unfinished business at Old Trafford and always felt like he would move back to Manchester. After three years away, United broke the world record transfer fee to see him back in their shirt, and while he has largely played well, he hasn't taken the league by storm as supporters would have hoped.
It's not just the formation that has held him back, either, but a lengthy injury too, followed by a three-match suspension after his controversial sending off in United's 3-1 victory over Arsenal last year.
In short, Pogba hasn't been able to find his rhythm, and rumours now suggest he's keen to move to Real Madrid after all.
United fans will be relieved to hear that Mino Raiola isn't the most popular man at the Bernabeu, and club president Florentino Perez has never bought a player from the super agent. Zinedine Zidane may be a fan of Pogba, but Real Madrid are reportedly put off by the transfer fee that would be required to get him out of Manchester, as well as his salary demands and the large fee Raiola would also demand. If the agent's comments in 2016 are anything to go by, he wouldn't support any desire Pogba may have to join the Spanish giants.
"Madrid buy players the way some people buy bath towels and then throw aside," said Raiola. "We are not interested in a club like that."
During Friday's news conference, Mourinho was keen to dismiss any reports that Pogba could leave United in a very stern conversation with journalists. He claimed that it was a "lie" to suggest Pogba was unhappy and simply acknowledged the player's dip in form instead. Having been left out of the starting team (in favour of Scott McTominay) for United's win over Huddersfield, before being substituted off in the game against Newcastle, there were suggestions that the manager and player had fallen out.
Mourinho claims this isn't true. "I accept and can speak on Paul's behalf without any kind of problem, Paul accepts he has not been playing well, but that's all," said Mourinho. "If you want to speak about it, that's one thing and speculation your words makes a little bit of sense. But the majority of things you can read and listen, don't be polite, be objective and say lies."
Still, while there may be no truth to the suggestion that Pogba is ready to leave Old Trafford, that doesn't mean he will be happy to see his form suffer in a position that is not one he prefers. At United, there's no Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal to do more of the defensive work for him; Matic's form has been inconsistent alongside Pogba, rarely reaching the heights of his first few months at the club.
Ander Herrera was voted player of the year by the fans last season but has struggled to get regular playing time this campaign. That said, he did well in the midfield three at Goodison Park, and it's strange that Mourinho hasn't employed this system more regularly after seeing how well it worked in January.
Pogba is a fantastic player and he has shown that on plenty of occasions this season. His absence through injury and suspension saw United go from title contenders to a team hoping for a second-placed finish at best.
"The team needs [Pogba] at a good level," Mourinho continued. "When he is not at a good level, the team is not as good. It happens with every team when the most crucial players are not performing." With Mourinho hitting the nail on the head here, it's odd that he doesn't opt to make Pogba the star man, play a formation that would see him play at a good level and, in turn, bring out the best in the team.
United face Huddersfield in the FA Cup at the weekend before another grudge match against Mourinho's former club, Chelsea. Managed by Antonio Conte, Pogba did great things in Serie A. The supporters are hoping that Mourinho will take a leaf out of the the former Juventus manager's book sooner rather than later and allow Pogba to shine in his best position.
If United are to have any hope of silverware this season, as well as finish the season strongly in second place behind City, Pogba has to be at his best, and Mourinho has to do all he can to make that happen.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.