Yaya Toure was naming his best XI this week. He picked a three-man defence, with Andres Iniesta the holding midfielder. His right wing-back was Leroy Sane, his left wing-back was Thierry Henry. Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero were in central midfield, so he could accommodate Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o up front.
Pogba is offering ringing endorsements of Ole Gunnar Solkjaer, privately and publicly, now he is free of defensive shackles. His brother Mathias, a third-tier footballer in France, was even more direct.
Paul Pogba cannot just ‘go play’ – there has to be discipline in midfield or the team falls apart
‘The problem was Jose Mourinho right down the line,’ he said. ‘I know my brother, you tell him, “Go — go play”, the rest he will do.’
Go play. The emptiest words in football’s lexicon. Messi can go play. Cristiano Ronaldo can go play. Most of those in Toure’s XI could, too.
Pogba? He’s a central midfielder. There has to be discipline and responsibility in his game, or the team falls apart. There will be times when he must track, or defend. If Solskjaer is winning hearts and minds at Manchester United with empty promises about just going out and playing, it is a matter of time before he comes unstuck.
It almost happened at Wembley on Sunday. The result and performance were a triumph for Solskjaer but he will know that with better finishing from Tottenham in the second half he could have lost — and part of the reason was Pogba decided to just play.
There were 43 minutes gone when Tottenham lost Moussa Sissoko. Until that point he had been keeping a steady eye on Pogba, but within a minute of his departure, the Manchester United man played the pass of the game to put in Marcus Rashford for United’s goal.
Without a defensive midfield detail to guard him, it seemed Pogba might run riot in the second half — instead he as good as knocked off. He barely tracked back, he lost the ball in positions that launched Tottenham counter- attacks — and David de Gea ended up saving United.
There were some outstanding, dutiful defensive performances to earn three points, but Pogba’s was not among them. Yet after the game he was lauded, and lauded Solskjaer in turn, too. Increasingly, we hear United’s players want the caretaker to get the job. No doubt they do if the mantra is go play.
‘I had to defend too much before,’ Pogba explained. ‘This is my position. The manager tells me to get in the box and score goals. The best example is Frank Lampard.’
Pogba played a match-winning pass against Tottenham, but switched off as United defended
Is it? Pogba has 58 goals in his entire career. Lampard got more than that in any three seasons added together between 2004-05 and 2009-10. He also matched Pogba’s total in just the final five seasons of his career, including his time in New York and as a sub with Manchester City.
Pogba has never scored more than eight goals in any league season. Lampard beat that total for 10 years straight. He averaged a goal every 3.07 games for Chelsea; Pogba one every 5.23 for Juventus, even before Mourinho put on the brakes.
So Pogba is a midfield player. A very fine one, capable of playing a match-winning pass and dominating big matches, but a midfield player nonetheless.
He doesn’t get a free rein. He doesn’t get to go play. He has to do his work, and follow his man when necessary — particularly in a team that already includes three forwards in Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and, when he is fit, Alexis Sanchez.
For if Pogba doesn’t do his shift then that attitude will spread and if Solskjaer isn’t prepared to tell him the truth about his role, then he’s not the man for the job. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t require anyone to just play: not Paul Scholes, not Ryan Giggs, not even Ronaldo.
Pogba does not have the goal return to justify being given free rein to play as he pleases
Listen to Sam, Huddersfield
Sam Allardyce is justifiably proud of having avoided relegation as a Premier League manager, so it is no surprise he is steering clear of Huddersfield.
He is right, too, in identifying their problem: 13 goals in 22 matches. Huddersfield are doomed unless they sign a prolific striker, and there is little indication they have the finance or will to do that in this transfer window.
Allardyce’s advice? Prepare for the Championship next season and hope to regroup to return at the first attempt. Allardyce would know.
It is no surprise Sam Allardyce is steering clear of the managerial position at Huddersfield
Spurs’ lack of depth threatens their top four bid
Harry Kane’s injury is viewed as an opportunity for Tottenham to show they are not a one-man team – but Tottenham are a one-man team. Not in a derogatory sense, but because Kane is their only elite-class striker.
Son Heung-min is away on international duty, Lucas Moura is returning from injury and both tend to play supporting roles, rather than leading the line. This leaves Fernando Llorente, who last scored a Premier League goal on January 2, 2018.
The best option may yet be to play Moura, if fit, with Dele Alli in support, but that is not the same as having Kane.
Tottenham’s squad is relatively small, and when injuries bite, they become a one-man team in several positions. Yet still they reduce.
Given their paucity of options in midfield, why sell Mousa Dembele to China? Daniel Levy may consider £11million a good deal for a 31-year-old who is out of contract in the summer, but is it, in the circumstances?
Tottenham are a point ahead of Chelsea who have played without a striker of Kane’s talent all season — and that may be about to change with the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain.
Meanwhile, Manchester United are coming strong, rejuvenated by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The depth of Tottenham’s squad could make the difference in securing a Champions League place next season. Why weaken?
Harry Kane’s injury is viewed as an opportunity for Tottenham – but they are a one-man team
O’Neill’s romantic tale is unlikely to have a happy ending
Martin O’Neill should be the perfect manager of Nottingham Forest. Who doesn’t love the romance of the former player coming to the rescue of the club he loves?
The hope is that O’Neill succeeds and, most importantly, that he is given time to do so. And that, sadly, is where the romance ends.
O’Neill’s predecessor, Aitor Karanka, was doing a good job. The Championship is hugely competitive this year, but he had Forest in the mix for the play-offs, and had steered them to wins over Leeds, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, achieving draws with Norwich, West Bromwich and Derby.
Yet Karanka felt sufficiently at risk of the sack from owner Evangelos Marinakis to walk out last week. Will it be any different for O’Neill? The fans will feel bonded to him instantly, but Marinakis does not share their memories and loyalties. Equally, O’Neill is not the type to tolerate interference from above — and that is before the volatile Roy Keane arrives as his No 2.
The club statement announcing the managerial appointment said the aim was to ‘make the miracle happen again’. A cynic might say it would be a miracle if it ended happily at all, no matter the joyous peal of wedding bells.
Martin O’Neill has made a dream return to Nottingham Forest – but romance won’t last for long
I spy Bielsa’s game…
For once, the Football League rose to the occasion. There are, they confirm, rules that govern the Leeds spying scandal. Regulation 3.4 speaks of clubs behaving towards each other with ‘utmost good faith’, while Regulation 21.2.1 governs bringing the game into disrepute. In other words: play nice.
A lot of folk have made excuses for cheating this week, sought equivalencies and tried on the clothes of the only grown-up in the village.
They all do it, they’re all at it, and everyone seeks to gain an advantage, runs the argument. To which the reply is: they don’t, they’re not, and yes, but there are boundaries.
Some have even argued this makes Marcelo Bielsa the ultimate professional, because he goes to such lengths to win — which is a similar argument used to justify the worst excesses of Luis Suarez. Meanwhile, Bielsa has decided the best defence is to be, on the surface, almost ruinously honest by admitting he spied on everybody.
This cleverly supports the claim that he did not know he was doing wrong, so that is why he did it so often. One question, then: if Bielsa was so innocent, why did his spies work with such diligence to remain hidden?
Marcelo Bielsa has been astonishingly honest over ‘Spygate’ – but could still face punishment
Jo’s late show is a farce
What an utter betrayal of tennis that Jo Konta and Garbine Muguruza were made to start their Australian Open second round game at gone midnight on Thursday.
What a credit to both players that they delivered one of the matches of the tournament, with just two service breaks separating them across three sets and three hours.
Konta lost and hurried from court close to tears and it was left to Muguruza to sum up the wanton destructiveness of it all. Surveying the hundreds of spectators that remained, she marvelled: ‘I can’t believe there were people watching. I mean, it’s 3.15am — who cares?’ Asked what she was going to do now, she said: ‘Go for breakfast.’
The organisers did not deserve good humour at such an hour. If a match starts late and runs over maybe there is a case for keeping the action and momentum going, but for players to not even start until the date has changed is a disgraceful failure of scheduling. Paying fans were deprived of an excellent match, and the meticulous preparations of the players risked ruin.
In no other sport is an athlete expected to perform in this way. It is scarcely believable the organisers think any of this is beneficial to their tournament, or their sport.
Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza played a superb match to a farcically small crowd
Try not to laugh as the posturing members of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport take the Football Association to task for their handling of the wrongful dismissal case involving Lucy Ward and Leeds United.
The FA look to have done their usual bang-up job on what appears an open-and-shut case of sex discrimination, but compared to Parliament’s handling of Brexit, they are masters of efficiency. How MPs have the brass neck to criticise corporate governance at any other institution is a mystery to all.
FA must solve Pep’s cup clash
Pep Guardiola’s well-laid plans have been wrecked by fixture congestion from two Football League competitions. Guardiola sent a strong Manchester City team out in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Burton, in the hope of getting a two-legged tie over in 90 minutes. He won 9-0.
The idea was that he would then use a significant number of his Under 23 elite development squad to complete the tie.
Yet this has been undermined by the scheduling of a Checkatrade Trophy match with Sunderland next Tuesday, the day before the Burton game. City must field an Under 23 team in that competition, and, despite communication with the EFL, no rearranged date could be found.
How ridiculous. Does the EFL not appreciate how damaging it could be if City just took the easy way out and withdrew from one of the competitions?
The Checkatrade Trophy is at the quarter-final stage, so if City scratched the Sunderland game, but let the Under-23 squad play Burton instead, the players would only miss out on two games, maximum.
Yet what if City simply resigned from the Carabao Cup and let a team who had already lost 9-0 have a bye to a Wembley final against Tottenham or Chelsea? What an embarrassment that would be for the Football League. Would its cup competition ever recover from such mockery?
Man City manager Pep Guardiola’s well laid plans have been wrecked by fixture congestion
One of the reasons Harry Redknapp left Tottenham was that the club’s owners were unhappy he did not distance himself from the England job when it became available.
So what to make of Mauricio Pochettino and Manchester United? Not exactly playing hard to get, is he?
His revelation that he was present for the Champions League final at the Nou Camp in 1999, and cheered when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich, was dropped in as perfectly as any billet-doux.
Mauricio Pochettino is not playing hard to get when it comes to the Manchester United job
The job description for the post of RFU chief executive favours commercial expertise ahead of rugby knowledge.
Why the surprise? All major sports bodies are corporate entities now, and the appointment of Eddie Jones was an entirely commercial exercise, born out of the desire to protect the brand after a disappointing World Cup. It is merely coincidental it was a rugby decision, too.