After an inconsistent couple of years at Manchester United, having made his return to the club he played for at youth level, Paul Pogba is finally showing what he is capable of on a regular basis.
He had previously been prone to periods of dominance, where his influence made the difference between winning and losing, before falling into an alarming slump, where, at best, he failed to pull off his fancy tricks and at worst looked totally disinterested.
His performance in United’s defeat against Brighton a few months ago was as bad as it got.
“They had more hunger than us,” he said after the game. “I put myself first, my attitude was not right enough.”
A few weeks later United drew 1-1 at home to Wolves and Pogba’s post-match assessment caused irreparable damage in the relationship between the player and Jose Mourinho.
“I’m not the manager, I cannot, like, say that but … obviously we should show more option of playing but I cannot say that because I’m a player,” he said. “That’s my way of thinking – we should move better, we should move more, yeah. We are at home and we should play much better against Wolves. When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack. That’s Old Trafford. We are here to attack. I think teams are scared when they see Man United attacking and attacking. That was our mistake.”
When asked what was stopping United from doing that, Pogba said: “I can’t tell you because I’m a player. It’s not me.”
Mourinho told the dressing room that Pogba would not captain United again for as long as he was at the club. When confirming this decision to the media, Mourinho claimed there had been no falling out and that he didn’t need to offer an explanation to them as to why he had chosen to take the vice-captaincy off Pogba.
United lost 3-1 to West Ham in the next game, with Pogba putting in a particularly dreadful shift, although none of the players covered themselves in glory. Pogba was substituted in the second half and the away end let their frustration with the player known.
Whatever issues he had with Mourinho, the supporters wanted Pogba to play for the shirt and were angered by him seemingly giving up. Reports suggested he would leave the club at the end of the season with him growing tired of taking orders from Mourinho and frustrated with the position he was being asked to play in, which dulled his best attributes.
However, of the many changes at United since Mourinho was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there’s no difference more stark than that of Pogba’s form. He finally looks like the player the fan base was expecting when the club forked out £89 million to bring him back.
After a man of the match performance against Huddersfield, Solskjaer was full of praise for the midfielder, claiming he now looked like the player the manager had known during his previous role at the club a decade ago.
“That’s the Paul I have known since he was in the reserves and youth team,” he said. “He’s always been a happy boy, a big smile on his face and when you score two you’re happy. It’s a response and Paul loves playing for this club. He’s a Manchester United boy through and through and knows what it means to play for the club.”
Pogba has played in all eight games since Mourinho was replaced by Solskjaer, scoring six goals and assisting four more, as well as forcing the save from Petr Cech, after his driving run from his own half, which allowed Anthony Martial to tap in the rebound when United knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup.
This season was supposed to be the one where Pogba really shone, buoyed by his World Cup triumph, but it didn’t come in to fruition under the former manager. As well as scoring in the final for France, videos of the midfielder appeared online of the rousing team talks he gave to his teammates ahead of their big games.
He’s not just an important player on the field, but in the dressing room too, and now that he is playing for a manager where there is mutual respect and trust, the question has been asked as to whether he is ready to wear the armband again.
“When we go we go, pressing first ones! Now we’re at home. we go strong we start strong!”
— United Xtra (@utdxtra) December 27, 2018
So far, Solskjaer has stuck with the more experienced players, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, but has confirmed there’s no reason why Pogba won’t captain the team in the future.
“He’s a character, he influences people, he cares and he really wants to be successful,” the manager said. “I know him from before and when he’s enjoying himself he brings so many good things with him. He knows he can’t do it by himself, he knows it’s a team game but you can see the personality, you can see what winning the World Cup meant to him, so for me, yes, he’s captain material.”
It shouldn’t be long before neither Valencia nor Young get close to United’s starting XI, and therefore Pogba seems like the obvious candidate going forward. If Solskjaer continues to impress as he has over his first couple of months and is appointed permanently ahead of next season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Frenchman announced as the captain.