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Paul Pogba still struggling for consistency at Manchester United
Manchester United take on Tottenham on Monday Night Football
Last Updated: 27/08/18 7:30pm
Paul Pogba is likely to be a central figure when Manchester United host Tottenham on Monday Night Football - but which version of the midfielder will Mauricio Pochettino's side face?
Just six weeks after the euphoria of lifting the World Cup with France, Paul Pogba finds himself at the centre of a storm back at Manchester United. Last Sunday's 3-2 loss to Brighton plunged the club into crisis. Pogba's relationship with Jose Mourinho is under scrutiny and so too is his form.
It could easily have been a different story. Pogba excelled in the opening day win over Leicester, scoring United's opener and lasting 84 minutes despite his late return from the World Cup. "Pogba was a monster," said Mourinho. "We thought the maximum [he could play] was 60 minutes, but he managed more than 80. He was very, very good for us."
But the mood soon turned sour. "There are things that I cannot say otherwise I will get fined," said Pogba afterwards, hinting at tension behind the scenes. A few days after that, Mourinho was forced to deny reports of a bust-up between them. He insisted he had "never been happier" with Pogba, but events at the Amex Stadium only added to the sense of unease.
United were poor on the south coast, conceding three first-half goals for the only the 10th time in Premier League history, and while Pogba got himself on the scoresheet for the second consecutive game, his overall performance was criticised. According to Opta, he lost possession 27 times - the most by any outfield player in the Premier League this season.
Pogba has been made captain in the absence of Antonio Valencia but he admitted his attitude was "not right" in his post-match interview with Sky Sports, and there was criticism from elsewhere, too. Paul Scholes accused him of a lack of leadership, prompting a fiery response from Pogba's agent, Mino Raiola, on Twitter. And so the saga continued.
It is to that backdrop that Mourinho, Pogba and United prepare to face Tottenham on Monday - a task which is made tougher by their opponents' bright start to the season. Spurs were the only Premier League side not to sign a single player in the summer, but they head to Old Trafford having taken maximum points from their first two games.
What happens in their third could depend on which version of Pogba they come up against. Will it be the imperious midfielder who helped France to World Cup glory over Croatia and went the extra mile against Leicester on the opening day? Or will it be the unfocused under-performer who struggled against Brighton?
Mourinho will hope that Pogba can rediscover his form swiftly, but the situation is delicate and the inconsistency is a familiar problem. "I'm not expecting him to be phenomenal every match because that is really, really difficult," said Mourinho last season. "But I do expect him to keep a certain level. That's the challenge."
Mourinho was speaking after Pogba's outstanding performance in United's 3-2 win over Manchester City in April. The Frenchman looked like a world-beater that day, scoring twice and inspiring United's comeback, but his underwhelming performance in their next game, a 1-0 defeat to West Brom, summed it all up. Just eight days after his heroics at the Etihad Stadium, Pogba was hooked before the hour-mark.
"He is a fantastic footballer and he makes Manchester United a better team," said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville at the time. "But you have to deliver consistently. Manchester United have shown great faith in him to deliver. They paid a lot of money for him, and there's a large expectation. The Manchester United badge carries a large responsibility."
Is that responsibility too much for him? Mourinho has extended what Neville described as an "olive branch" to Pogba by handing him the captain's armband in recent weeks, but his response has been questionable. His Leicester display was overshadowed by his post-match comments, and he admitted himself that he lacked focus against Brighton.
Tottenham saw both sides of Pogba in their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United last season. The Frenchman was caught out for their opener, failing to track Christian Eriksen's run as he crossed for Dele Alli to score, but he was excellent for the equaliser, wrestling Mousa Dembele off the ball and setting up Alexis Sanchez.
United went on to win 2-1 that day at Wembley, claiming their place in the FA Cup final as Pogba atoned for his early error, and he now finds himself with a point to prove once again. Will he inspire his side in the way we all know he can? Or will the same old issues resurface? It could be the difference between victory and defeat.
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