Jose Mourinho’s strained relations with Manchester United’s record signing Paul Pogba will again come under close scrutiny when the Premier League returns from its international break this weekend.
Mourinho’s side, out of action for two weeks since winning an FA Cup quarter-final against Brighton, face struggling Swansea at Old Trafford on Saturday, with the United manager forced to decide whether to recall the French international to his line-up.
Pogba has been left out of the starting XI by Mourinho for United’s past three games, a shocking turn of events given that run has included a cup quarter-final, a vital Champions League tie against Sevilla and a high-profile Premier League meeting with fierce local rivals Liverpool.
But the 25-year-old’s struggle to find consistent form, plus an obvious difficulty on Mourinho’s part to fit him into a system that suits his style of play, has seen Pogba reach what appears to be a crossroads in his career under the Portuguese manager.
Should Mourinho retain his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation against Swansea, the decision about his starting line-up may be aided by the fact that young Scotland international Scott McTominay, who has played in Pogba’s position for two of those past three fixtures, has returned from international duty with a calf injury.
Pogba strengthened his claims for a recall, turning in an impressive performance for France in their 3-1 friendly victory against World Cup hosts Russia in St Petersburg in midweek.
In keeping with the inconsistent nature of his season, however, he had been left out of the previous World Cup warm-up game against Colombia.
The win in Russia included a free kick goal from Pogba, the first time he has hit the net since scoring for United in the 4-1 Premier League win over Newcastle in mid-November.
And that game also featured an assist from the Manchester United man, something he has failed to provide for his club for two-and-a-half months.
At the heart of Pogba’s problems with United lies the issue of which system favours the Frenchman, with the player himself known to prefer a 4-3-3 approach that allows him to focus on his attacking, ahead of his defensive, talents.
However his club manager has been reluctant to adopt that formation, on a regular basis at least, with Pogba usually used in front of his back-four, a fact that explains why he has scored just three times this season and has not hit the net for United for well over four months.
Mourinho possibly has bigger issues with which to contend after United players returned from the international break this week to prepare for their first club fixture in two weeks against Swansea.
The United manager launched an astonishing verbal tirade against his players after the FA Cup tie, accusing them of showing “a lack of personality, lack of class and lack of desire” despite a comfortable 2-0 win.
Only midfielders Nemanja Matic and McTominay, playing in place of Pogba, were spared Mourinho’s wrath, and the United boss faces a stern test of his man-management skills to ensure there is no residual effect from that public humiliation of his stars.
Former England left back Luke Shaw, substituted at halftime of the Brighton game, bore the brunt of Mourinho’s anger.
And the United manager will be hoping Ashley Young recovers from the knee injury he sustained playing for Gareth Southgate’s team against Italy on Tuesday in order to replace his teammate against Swansea.