Paul Pogba could return for Man Utd this month but Jose Mourinho knows he needs to make plans for him in the transfer window next year.

Paul Pogba might have returned to Carrington last month to find the basketball hoops had been removed. His extra-curricular activities on the court have caused concern among Manchester United staff members as they ponder literally wrapping him up in cotton wool between games once he has regained fitness.

Pogba initially trained alone at Carrington last month after sunning himself and sculpting his body in the Miami sunshine. It was there where Jose Mourinho noticed – via Instagram – how fond the Frenchman is of shooting hoops in his downtime and the United manager referred to his athleticism on the ball when he was asked whether Pogba would have any trouble passing a medical.

Mourinho mused last month he was maybe at ‘fault’ for United not receiving enough credit and suggested he might have to reconsider his profile and ‘cry’ about injuries. He may also have to reconsider United’s transfer strategy to alleviate the burden on his most pivotal player. “I saw him Instagramming. Swimming, karate, running, basketball, football, he does everything, so he must be fit,” Mourinho laughed.

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United are slowly building a team around their ‘captain’ midfielder. Pogba is expected to eventually inherit the armband under Mourinho and the Portuguese has tailored United’s transfer targets around his most expensive acquisition; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antoine Griezmann, Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata – friends, Mino Raiola stablemates, teammates past and present – have hovered prominently on United’s radar.

Another player on Mourinho’s wanted list before he rocked up at United was Renato Sanches. United refused to publicly undermine Louis van Gaal and could have clinched a deal for Sanches a week before he agreed to join Bayern Munich in May last year but were understood to be concerned that had they signed Sanches it would have all but confirmed their intention to replace Van Gaal with Mourinho.

Mourinho was prepared to ‘fight’ for Sanches had United not appointed him belatedly. The understanding was Sanches was identified as a talent too good to overlook, rather than as the preferred midfield target ahead of Pogba. Ultimately, Mourinho settled for a ‘nucleus’ of four signings, with just one of them a central midfielder.

United’s lack of innovation between the defence and attack over the last month has reiterated the need for a central attacker, be it a forward-thinking midfielder or a playmaker. Mesut Ozil has received some encouragement from Mourinho with a view to a possible reunion and United have not ended their interest in Griezmann, filmed hugging Pogba in the France dressing room. Michael Carrick’s United career is petering out, Marouane Fellaini could leave in the summer and Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic are in their late 20s.

Rather than ease the strain on Pogba this year, United have increased it. Griezmann rejected them, Internazionale refused to budge over Ivan Perisic and Romelu Lukaku, however formidable he might appear, does not have the presence of his No.9 predecessor, a man who can get away with renaming his country. So in a squad with a supposed lack of creativity, United have depended on Mourinho improving incumbents while barely addressing a frontline which managed a measly 54 Premier League goals last term.

Had Mourinho got his way, he would have had a dynamic midfield ‘runner’, an enterprising winger and a world-class forward to supplement Pogba or offset his absence. Instead, he took on Chelsea without that desired quartet and got caught between two stools as he persisted with Marcus Rashford alongside Lukaku, a tactic Mourinho acknowledged did not work against Tottenham the previous week.

Mourinho did not sign two attacking targets he wanted in the summer

There is some rancour from Mourinho’s side over a lack of backing in the transfer market, particularly when he is glaring up at Manchester City. Pep Guardiola has spent nearly £100m more than his adversary and it has left United eight points adrift, yet Mourinho has spent a vast enough sum over two summers and is coming off a traumatic final four months at Chelsea. He knows it is his reputation is on the line.

Ozil has already been informed his best hope of clinching a United move is by running down his contract before moving on a free in the summer, and a £90m deal for Griezmann is unlikely to be sanctioned by the Glazer family in the new year when Ibrahimovic is available. A great conductor needs a good soloist and Pogba may have to go it alone until next season.

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