The game is up, if it wasn’t already. With each week that he is absent with a confusingly persistent injury, Paul Pogba shows he is indispensable to Manchester United’s title challenge.
Though Jose Mourinho cannot expect too much sympathy, given that his club has the financial resources of a small nation, he can feel entitled to some frustration. Even he cannot have anticipated how much less effective United would be without the Frenchman.
If there is any consolation to be drawn from this situation, it is that Pogba has assumed the influence that many supporters hoped he would upon his return to Old Trafford. It took him longer than expected — which, in mitigation, was partly because he was not coming into the very best of teams. United were still emerging from a stultifying few months under Louis van Gaal, and Pogba was expected to sew together the disparate strands of a team low on confidence.
In retrospect — unsurprisingly, perhaps — he ultimately failed. He produced two months of superb form around the close of the year, but in the biggest games he faltered or his temper frayed. Like Shinji Kagawa in his debut season, he seemed to be only ever an important goal away from his season taking flight — but, like Kagawa, that goal never came.
In Kagawa’s case, there was that moment when his superb rising drive hit the crossbar against Liverpool, in the Capital One Cup in September 2013. In Pogba’s case, his acquaintance with the woodwork was far more common, and infuriating. He also had to contend with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s surprising wastefulness in front of goal at key moments — though Ibhrahimovic was magnificent on several occasions, he also failed to make the breakthrough too often following fine passes from Pogba.
Now, though, Pogba is the creative fulcrum of his team. Excessively so. The earlier games of the season were against the weaker teams, and so this was not so apparent, but now it is entirely clear. While Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford ran riot in the game’s latter stages, and while Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan respectively found space and provided assists aplenty, it was Pogba who was the thread that ran through United’s chain-mail. It is an exaggeration to say they have disintegrated without him — they are still in a healthy position in the league — but they are vastly diminished.
The criticism must turn again to Mourinho’s recruitment policy in the summer. It is not that he has not bought very well, but that he has not done so in sufficient quantity. Marouane Fellaini has performed beyond expectations, but he would not claim to be someone who dictates the play — which is precisely what United need in Pogba’s absence, and which is a brief that Ander Herrera does not quite have the creative chops to fill.