Paul Pogba will struggle to score even a quarter of the goals netted by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and will not receive the same personal accolades collected by such illustrious rivals but, as the French international record signing prepares for his second Manchester United debut tonight, Jose Mourinho has no doubt he has signed the world’s best midfield player.
The £89 million former Juventus man will play some role in the opening Friday night Premier League fixture of the season, at home to Southampton, four years after leaving Old Trafford for nothing.
Mourinho has called on United supporters to help improve the atmosphere inside Old Trafford – something that has been lacking over three disappointing years under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal – and while he warns those fans not to expect spectacular instant results from Pogba, he has no doubt of his quality.
”First of all, when you speak about the best players in the world, you go immediately to the ones that score a lot of goals,” said Mourinho. “You don’t give a golden ball to a goalkeeper, you give it to [Fabio] Cannavaro once, because in that season he was the captain of Italy, the world champions, not many top players.
“Maldini never got a golden ball, Zanetti never got a golden ball, top goalkeepers over history didn’t get a gold ball, so you look immediately to the ones that score a lot of goals.
“Can Paul score the same number of goals as Ronaldo and Messi? Not even 25 per cent, I believe. I believe in a season he can’t score 20 goals.
“So if to be the best player in the world means to score a lot of goals, that’s not the point. But he’s one of the best midfield players, maybe I could say the best in the world.”
United’s vast investment in Pogba has been all the more spectacular given his departure from Old Trafford on a free transfer in the summer of 2012 when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge.
Mourinho has spoken with the former United manager concerning the loss of Pogba four years ago and claims the club’s current hierarchy deserves praise for righting that earlier error.
“We exchanged a few ideas about it,” said Mourinho. “I know the club did everything, Sir Alex did everything.
“The decision was made between the player, his entourage, his agent and the way it worked for them, it was a great decision. But I think it was very important for the club not to be afraid to do what they did (re-sign him).
“If you lose a player, it doesn’t mean if you get a chance to recover him, you don’t recover him. Chelsea did the same mistake with (Nemanja) Matic. And a few years later, I pushed the club to do the deal. We did one mistake, why would we want to make the same mistake? So Paul is back and I think really happy to be back.”
Given he has only been back in pre-season training with United for 11 days, Pogba seems likely to either start and leave proceedings early against Southampton or come off the bench for the final half hour or so.
Manchester United’s best XI with Paul Pogba
David De Gea
Has been Manchester United’s best player for the last four or five seasons and, after having a move to Real Madrid collapse last summer he is now more important than ever. He saved United repeatedly under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal and will hope under Jose Mourinho that there is less to do.
A good player whose first season at Old Trafford was badly affected by injuries, Darmian should improve next year under the guidance of Mourinho. He has played for a similarly prescriptive coach for Italy in Antonio Conte and will provide exactly what Mourinho wants in the role.
One of United’s most improved players under Louis van Gaal, he established a leadership and consistency that he had lacked before. Now he is near the peak of his powers and gives Mourinho someone to build around at the back.
The first of Mourinho’s summer signings, the £30million man from Villarreal has looked good in pre-season already. Will need to adjust to the speed of the Premier League but looks well equipped to do that and form a strong pairing with Smalling.
Had his last season ruined by a broken leg against PSV Eindhoven and without him United lacked pace and width down the left. Mourinho will like his competitive attitude and Shaw will surely feature in Sam Allardyce’s England squads soon enough.
Mourinho teams always have a midfield anchor, what he calls a ‘number 6’, and there is no-one better suited to the job at United now than Schneiderlin. Did not play as much as he should have done last year but that should change now.
The big issue for Mourinho will be where to fit in the £100million man. There will be times when he plays alongside Schneiderlin in a 4-2-3-1, when United can afford to attack more, and others where he is pushed further up with two midfielders behind him. Finding the perfect platform will be Mourinho’s hardest task.
Not the highest profile summer signing at Old Trafford but a technical wizard who excelled in his three seasons at Borussia Dortmund, which is why Arsenal wanted him too. Likelier to be on the right of a 4-2-3-1, where he will provide creativity and intelligence.
Mourinho said very clearly that Rooney will not play in midfield this season for United, so he will have to partner with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Rooney will likely start as a second striker or number 10, but has a job to prove that he is still sharp enough for the job.
Never looked weighed down by his fee last season and showed pace, class and natural calm in front of goal. Likely to continue on the left this season where he will provide pace on the break, as long as he does the defending Mourinho demands too.
One final challenge for the big Swede who has won the league everywhere else he has played. Still has incredible strength and skill, even if he will be one of the slower strikers at the top this year. Just needs to find a way to be a focal point for his team-mates.
And Mourinho is aware that anyone expecting his latest signing to make a gaudy, eye-catching instant impression at United will be disappointed.
“I think his impact will be something very natural, something that. maybe for your eyes, will not become an ‘impact’, but in my eyes it will be a progressive impact of contribution to improve the team, because that’s what he’s here for, to win trophies, so I see a very natural process,” he said.
“I’m not expecting, the first time he touches the ball, to dribble five guys and score a wonder goal.
“I expect the first time he touches the ball to make a correct pass, a good selection of passes, a good choice, a good simple execution and the game fluid.
“So, maybe it’s not an impact, maybe just a natural improvement of the team, because he’s a super football player.”