Put two egotists in an unstable dressing room and eventually, the tension will reach breaking point. Ever since Paul Pogba rejoined Manchester United two summers ago his relationship with Jose Mourinho has felt uncomfortable, the swaggering young superstar an odd fit for a manager keen to resculpt his players in a restrictive, sacrificial mould. Mutual frustration was inevitable; the departure of one of them now imminent.
There is no path to a respectful handshake, no possible means of compromise. An olive branch might have been conceivable with another coach, but Mourinho is not a manager willing to back down in an argument or accept personal accountability. In short, his decision to inform Pogba that he will never again wear the captain's armband – a response to the Frenchman’s calculated swipe at Mourinho earlier in the week – can only end with one of them leaving Old Trafford.
Of the two, Mourinho is considerably more likely to be moved on by his employers. His attempt to reassert authority may be successful in the short term (it was certainly justifiable, perhaps even necessary, after Pogba's insubordinate “attack, attack, attack” comments in the mix zone after a 1-1 draw with Wolves), but this is not a battle the United manager can win.
There is a good reason why Pogba felt so secure in his protest, felt able to fire the bullet to end their precarious stalemate. Forget the rights and wrongs, forget the arguments over Mourinho’s defensive playing style versus Pogba's drifting inconsistency in a United shirt. There are simple logistical reasons why the France midfielder will be left standing at Old Trafford.
Pogba is of considerably higher value to Man Utd, both in simple economic terms and as the centrepiece of their global branding. The 24-year-old’s fame, in particular among teenagers, defines the corporate machinations of Man Utd's international image as the glamorous club of megastars. That blockbuster pull, to adorn merchandise and attract high-end sponsorship, is of far greater significance to the United board than winning trophies. Make no mistake, Man Utd's owners are in the business of generating revenue over and above anything else, and very few footballers in the world match the brand appeal of Paul Pogba.
Mourinho is expendable by comparison, and that’s before even considering the expected creation of a new intermediary role at the club between the coach and Ed Woodward. Transfers probably won’t be decided by Mourinho from now on, rendering him powerless in relation to the future of United’s prize asset.
Pogba could wish to leave, of course, but the Frenchman faces the issue of a wildly inflated market – and the stumbling block of his own poor form that’s been exacerbated, if not entirely caused by, Mourinho’s conservative tactical philosophy. Pogba is worth at least £200 million and none of the biggest clubs in Europe – Real Madrid, PSG, or Barcelona – are in the financial position to offer him an escape route. An ambling midfielder with a long track record of forcing through transfers simply isn’t appealing enough to risk severe financial fair play sanctions.
Conversely, Mourinho is already in his third season at United, a long time by any modern coach’s standards but particularly those of the Portuguese. Nine points from six league matches has ramped up the pressure, tipping the balance in Pogba’s favour even further.
A couple of mildly reassuring, if generally aimless, victories against Watford and Brighton did not hint at the beginning of a recovery for Jose Mourinho but rather shifted the likely endgame from total capitulation to gradual decay. To have so dramatically, and probably terminally, fractured his relationship with such a valuable player has surely accelerated the process again. Some critics have suggested Mourinho has tried to manufacture his own dismissal this season, creating an exit strategy that allows him to leave as a victim rather than a failure. If Mourinho really is trying to get fired, humiliating Paul Pogba is a pretty smart move.