If the idea of England playing Iceland in Albania is the most unexpected story of the international break, then a story questioning the future of Paul Pogba emerging in France is the most predictable.
It’s comforting to know there are still some things you can set your watch by in this most unpredictable of years and as soon as Pogba leaves the confines of Manchester to link up with France the debate over his future is usually back into the open.
Often it is Pogba himself fuelling the stories, as it was in October when his flirtation with Real Madrid resumed, but this time it’s national boss Didier Deschamps.
The Les Bleus’ coach told the French media on Monday that Pogba “cannot be happy” with his playing time or his position at Manchester United, firing the starting gun on another two weeks of speculation about what the future holds for the World Cup winner.
By now most United fans are tired of this saga and would be happy to wave Pogba off to Real Madrid for a handsome fee. The 27-year-old expressed his desire for a new challenge in the summer of 2019 and little appears to have changed since.
“Paul, I know him well and he knows the group well. He is in a situation with his club where he cannot be happy, neither with his playing time, nor with his positioning,” said Deschamps.
“He is not in his best period, he has had a series of injuries and the Covid-19 which has hit him quite hard. He needs to find his rhythm.
“The match he had to make last month was good and consistent despite a lack of pace. We cannot however say that he is fulfilled in what he does at his club.
“With me, there is no such concern, but I try to manage it too. When a player is in discomfort in his club, obviously, he is happy to play for the France team. He will tell me about his feelings and as I know him very well, it will go in a positive direction. Even if it is also up to him to make all his efforts.”
Given Pogba wanted to leave United when he was playing regularly, it should be little surprise that he’s not exactly enamoured with the idea of being an impact sub at a club that he doesn’t think can provide him with the challenge he needs anyway.
Since the last international break Pogba has started just two of United’s seven games and he has begun only five of the 12 games so far this season.
But more than his lack of playing time, it was Deschamps questioning Pogba’s position at United that really hinted at his biggest problem.
Since returning from injury in June Pogba has tended to start games in a deep midfield role, often alongside Nemanja Matic, but that duo have looked too open this season and Pogba’s only starts over the last month have come when Solskjaer has used a diamond midfield, a tactic that may well have been abandoned with defeat to Arsenal.
United entered the international break by winning what was arguably their most important match of the season at Everton on Saturday.
The under-pressure Reds came from behind to beat the Toffees thanks to Bruno Fernandes’ double and Edinson Cavani’s first goal for United.
United have a two-week break with many of their stars heading off on international duty – we’ll be keeping tabs on how they all perform, and on preparations for their next Premier League match against West Brom.
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Pogba’s best performances for United have come when he’s played in a more advanced role and the comments from his manager at international level suggest that is where he sees himself playing.
Unfortunately, his chances of featuring there for United are slim at the moment. Bruno Fernandes has made the sole advanced midfield role in Solskjaer’s system his own since signing in January and his numbers far outweigh anything Pogba has ever been able to offer United.
That is why he now finds himself restricted to the role of impact sub and that might be how the rest of his United career pans out. Pogba managed just eight minutes in the win at Everton on Saturday, although he was decisive off the bench against Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain in mid-October.
With his days as a midfield anchor over and his chances of displacing Fernandes as likely as telling French TV he wants to stay at Old Trafford, a solution to his lack of playing time is unlikely to arrive anytime soon.