by Joe Butterfield
“Someday I hope City are going to slip and I hope, and I know that it’s bad to say things like this, but I hope for us that some very important players get injured.”
These are the kinds of words you would expect to hear down at the pub, having a few beers with your United-supporting mates when you begin to rub City’s utter dominance of the league up to this point in their face. From the fan perspective, this is a perfectly normal sentiment. The rivalry, hatred and the desire to win titles when competing at the top level is absolute. Seeing your rival teams’ players suffer long-term injuries is something every football fan on the planet has been guilty of celebrating.
It would surprise you, then, to learn that this sentiment did not come from a fan. It wasn’t heard in the local pub. It didn’t come from a football phone-in after a United fan watched Raheem Sterling late winners twice in one week and, emboldened by a couple of Strongbows he’d quickly taken down in an effort to cheer himself up, decided to vent his frustations on 606 in a flurry of desperation and rage. No, this came from Manchester United’s Dab University lecturer, Paul Pogba.
In an interview with BBC’s Football Focus, Pogba was asked whether or not he truly believed that City could be caught. His response was not typical of the usual spiel a football player is briefed to give before these interviews. He didn’t simply say that City would eventually slip up because the law of averages would imply they can’t keep up their current form for the whole season, nor did he say that he believed in the strength of his own team and that they’d keep pushing City right up until the end. Instead, he wished injuries on City’s players and, in doing so, his fellow professionals.
Now, I’m not doubting that this is a thought which crosses the mind of pretty much every professional in the game, just like it inhabits the thought of all fans. It’s only natural to want to see your opponents weakened as it is obviously going to give you the upper hand, it’s human nature to want to be given an edge when it comes to competition and to say such things privately is fine. To do so publicly, however, is pretty disgraceful and lacks any semblance of class.
It’s the unwritten rule in sport that you never wish injury on your fellow professionals. We’ve all seen how Manchester derbies have changed in the last decade alone. Long gone are the days of Darius Vassell and Martin Petrov going toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, where there’s a legitimate sense of dislike between the two teams. United vs City nowadays is two teams of international team-mates playing against one another. No longer are Vidic and Ferdinand scrambling to punch an indifferent Mario Balotelli, instead David Silva and Juan Mata are checking they’re still on for Monday night’s meal.
The point is, there’s a comradery off the pitch between rivals which once did not exist. Sure, Pogba’s only international team-mates who play for City are Benjamin Mendy (a man who has suffered a ruptured cruciate ligament injury, but we’ll get to that) and, at a very long stretch, Eliaquim Mangala, however everybody else is somebody who at least one of his own team-mates will know very well. It’s a World Cup year and a serious injury can jeopardise that, something which should never be wished on a fellow pro.
Pogba went on to further clarify what he’d said: “Like what’s happening with us because, people don’t speak about this, but every time you have important players injured it’s when there are important games.”
Now, in terms of pure numbers of injuries, Pogba probably has a point. United have suffered a lot of injuries but none of them have been massively serious with the exception of his own injury, which kept him out for around two months. Phil Jones’s wet-toilet-paper muscles keep breaking down on him on a near-weekly basis, but this is a player who until September was considered a backup to Smalling and Bailly. Marouane Fellaini, the human elbow personified, has also suffered a few weeks on the sidelines, although he’s a player who many Manchester United fans have been spending the best part of four years saying shouldn’t even be at the club.
So which “important games” have these players missed? Both Pogba and Fellaini missed the 0-0 draw with Liverpool and, realistically, these are two players who would have no doubt started the game. At Anfield, however, Mourinho’s men had absolutely no chance of winning with the game plan they went in with and I don’t believe this game plan would have been different with Pogba and Fellaini’s involvement. Pogba missed the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea, which is fair. Pogba also missed the 1-0 victory over Spurs, which they won, so he clearly wasn’t missed.
Now, let’s compare this to Manchester City. Vincent Kompany, the club captain who fans, journalists and pundits alike were in agreement that the defence could not function without, suffered a recurrence of the calf muscle injury which has plagued his career, keeping him out for two months during which time he missed games against Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as both games against Napoli in the Champions League. City took 15 points from these games. Ilkay Gundogan returned from a nine-month ACL injury only to have his knee battered by Claudio Yacob, keeping him out for another few weeks. City won every game he was unavailable for. Sergio Aguero was involved in a car accident days before an away game against the current champions, Chelsea, and was ruled out of the game as a result. City won that game.
John Stones, the man who has absolutely stepped up in place of Vincent Kompany, the leader at the back and the main cog in Guardiola’s ball-playing defence, has suffered a hamstring injury similar to Pogba’s, only this will keep him out for the entire Christmas period during which time he will miss at least twelve games if he returns to action in 2018. City currently have three wins from three played without him.
And so we come to Benjamin Mendy, Pogba’s international team-mate and, judging by this message he rather ironically sent during the same round of pre-Arsenal interviews, close friend who he hopes gets well soon. City’s only true left-back suffered a ruptured cruciate ligament in the game against Crystal Palace in September, an injury which will keep him out until virtually the end of the season. Fabian Delph is now Manchester City’s first (and only) choice left-back. City have won every game since Mendy’s injury.
Does any of this sound like a team which has been fortunate with injuries? City have dropped only two points this season, but this has nothing to do with injury fortunes. The back four has had to adjust to injuries in one way or another since the start of the season, it is brilliant coaching which has given City their gap at the top over Manchester United and ensured that the points roll in, regardless of the notable absentees. To the contrary, if the current injury lists remain the same prior to the Manchester derby, City will be missing two of their ideal back four while United will be missing Carrick, a player who would never start that game. Who is worse off as things stand?
As for Pogba’s comments regarding the idea that “people don’t speak about this” when it comes to the importance of their injuries, when United lost to Huddersfield and Chelsea the overwhelming reaction from pundits and United fans alike was that the midfield was missing Pogba. Pogba’s absence was talked about at length and United’s injury woes have been mentioned in every game in which a player has been missing. This is not some kind of unspoken truth which has evaded everybody in the footballing world, it’s been a well-acknowledged fact.
Ultimately, Pogba’s comments display an inferiority complex which has existed ever since Ferguson left United. When Ferguson lost the title to Manchester City in 2012, he vowed to stay on for one more year to take back what was his. Ferguson got the players he needed to win the title, instilled the belief within his players that they would win the title and that it was their right to win the title, and lo and behold, they won the title. Something similar is happening with Guardiola right now, truly top coaches don’t aspire to win, they live to win.
Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho have settled for lesser objectives – Champions League qualification has clearly been the target for the last few seasons whilst their local rivals have deemed this to be the bare minimum. Pogba has spent the last season and a half playing second fiddle to Manchester City and, now that United are starting the season with one of their best starts ever (United’s injuries really seem to be holding them back), City are still starting better. His public wish of injury on the squad reeks of petulance and a lack of faith in his own team to catch them. He doesn’t want to rise to the level of City, he wants City to be pegged back to theirs.
As David Moyes famously said, Manchester United aspire to be like Manchester City. No longer are United a top team which relishes in the challenge of a contender. No longer are they the team which “knocked Liverpool off their fucking perch”, they are now the team which hopes Manchester City slips off theirs and allow United to take their place by default.
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