Paul Pogba is on a roll. After completely dismantling the likes of Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth, the Frenchman has finally undermined his reputation of a small game player by delivering a stunning pass to Marcus Rashford at Wembley, against Tottenham. That one ball was worth another three points and catching up with Arsenal in the Premier League table.
There isn’t a single Premier League player that’s been recently on a bigger rollercoaster of form than Pogba. Eleven months ago, the once-most expensive footballer in history was getting subbed off for Michael Carrick after failing to cope with Jonjo Shelvey at St. James’ Park. A month ago, his own boss allegedly labeled him a ‘virus’ after a disappointing 2-2 draw with Southampton.
With merely 3 goals and 3 assists in 14 league appearances, United’s number 6 enjoyed fewer goal contributions than Wolverhampton’s wing-back, Matt Doherty.
Then, everything turned around on a cloudy Tuesday morning of 18th December.
Three years and one day after an abrupt Chelsea exit, José Mourinho had been dismissed from the job he was angling for ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Behind his back, the Portuguese boss left a team with very little confidence, unacceptable defensive record, £52 million worth of sunk costs in Fred and misfiring top earner Alexis Sánchez.
For Paul Pogba, such change could not have come at a better time. Two days earlier, with a hoodie deep on his face, the £89 million man watched a defeat at Anfield from the bench. The call to arms never came – Mourinho substituted Marouane Fellaini for Diogo Dalot during the break and then subbed on Anthony Martial and Juan Mata ahead of his most expensive player. If any boss has ever issued a vote of no confidence to his player, it could not have been clearer than this one.
Dry Spell or Deliberate Sabotage?
To be fair to The Special One, he had good reasons to snub the former Juventus man. After several months of unspoken animosity between the two, the conflict exploded at St. Mary’s, where Red Devils had to stage a comeback to rescue a point over very poor Southampton side.
Pogba’s performance in that match was nothing short of disastrous: he kept sending long passes into a vacuum, leaving the ball straight under opposition’s legs and trying to dribble by bodychecking the defenders in front of him.
For many other high-profile footballers, such a performance would have been a very suspicious body of work – especially in a situation in which their manager has reportedly lost 90% of a dressing room already.
A good example was set in February 2017, when Claudio Raneri was sacked from Leicester City and his slumping players immediately bounced back with a 3-1 victory over Liverpool. A Manchester United player doing the same to a manager he obviously was in a dispute with – that sounded quite plausible.
However – it’s not the first time Paul Pogba has come off as an epitome of inconsistency. By the end of 2016, he scored twice and assist two more goals in just four appearances – only to remain quiet for the next three months. In April, his heroic brace at Etihad delayed Manchester City’s coronation – but only by a week, as he delivered a diabolical game against West Bromwich and United lost to the relegation-bound side 0-1.
New Gaffer, New Start
Thus far, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has managed to evade the flip side of Pogba’s coin. He did so in three simple steps: first, by actually starting his French starlet in every single game and getting him properly match fit. Secondly, Solskjær has permanently re-introduced Ander Herrera to the starting XI, adding a player whose defensive prowess and tenacity complimented PP’s game superbly. Thirdly, United’s priciest signing has been given a license to roam in the final third and attempt killer passes at leisure – which are, by far, his greatest strengths.
Even more vital support has come Pogba’s way from Marcus Rashford. After over a year spent between the bench and the left-winger’s slot, the 21-year-old has wrestled a centre forward role from Romelu Lukaku, transforming Red Devils’ attacking play. Instead of searching Rom with direct passes or serving him through balls that invevitably catch the Belgian offside, the French playmaker has finally someone with both suitable skills and good enough current form to profit from the creative output Pogba provides.
Of course, for a player whose price tag should rank him among the game’s greatest, the Frenchman has still plenty of work to do. Even in a game in which United have been dominated in possession, he managed to be dispossessed six times – an improvement from the 14 times he lost it against Southampton, but still an alarming quota for a world-class player. Besides – just like in last year’s Manchester Derby when he took out Nicolas Otamendi, Pogba was lucky not to be sent off for a horrendous challenge on Dele Alli.
A Whole Wide World Ahead
The improved performances were followed by a shower of media praise: “Today, he was at his best and he was phenomenal,” said Jamie Redknapp after the Bournemouth win; “He deserved praise in the first half,” admitted one of the toughest Pogba’s critics, Graeme Souness, at the full-time at Wembley. “Bossed midfield and played the pass of the season for Rashford’s goal,” wrote John Cross from Mirror Sport, awarding the Frenchman with a 8/10 grade – second-best only to faultless David de Gea in Man U’s goal.
Pogba kept up his torrid form on Saturday against Fulham: the Frenchman netted twice in a 3-0 win over the relegation candidates. He opened his side’s account for the match in the 14th minute, latching onto a through ball in the box and lashing it high into the goal from a tight angle. He then finished off the Cottagers with a 64th minute penalty after Juan Mata went down at the top of the box, sealing three more points for the Red Devils.
The near future may hold even more reasons to be positive. Last season’s silver medalists are hosting Brighton and Burnley – the two teams with only eight points each from eleven away league matches this season. In-between that, there’s a trip to Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal, freshly upset by the lack of transfer funds and a 0-1 defeat against West Ham. And, to make things even better, February starts with a visit at King’s Power Stadium, where Claude Puel might soon end his tenure. On paper, these are some amazing fixtures for a midfielder who needs to keep his momentum.
In the grand scheme of things, though, this good run of form has not brought MU anywhere near the club’s past glory. Even with a Wembley win in their hands, the Red Devils are 16 (!) points behind Liverpool and merely fighting for next year’s Champions League spot. In Europe, Paris Saint-Germain is standing in their way – and even in an unlikely event that they overcome such obstacle, chances for the fourth UCL title remain slim. Those are two trophy conquests #Pogback was designed for. Will he measure up to them one day?
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