No player — not even the newest Parisian, Neymar — has had a better summer than Paul Pogba. His first season back with Manchester United was met with mixed reviews; a disappointing sixth-place league finish somewhat offset by two cup final victories. But, ever since the 2-0 Europa League Final triumph over Ajax, Pogba’s club spent the off-season seemingly hellbent on unlocking the full potential of its record signing.
Only the most jaded would call Pogba’s 2016/17 campaign lackluster, but his arrival on an £89 million world-record fee elevated expectations to an unreachable level. He traded the Serie A champion Juventus for a rebuilding Manchester United that relied on Pogba’s energy and industry to an unhealthy degree. Who wouldn’t expect a slight downturn in form?
Not to mention the nine times his shots thundered off the woodwork, an unlucky streak that significantly depressed his goal tally.
Much had been asked of Pogba — too much for José Mourinho’s taste, if his signing of Nemanja Matić gives any indication. It was a purchase that initially drew equal parts praise and scorn, but now looks a masterstroke. Best of all, it just might prove the key to tapping Paul Pogba’s unique skillset.
Matić is a Mourinho favorite, trusted to sit in front of the back four and destroy all opponent forays into the final third. This responsibility too often fell to Pogba last season, keeping the dynamic homegrown hero in positions far too deep to be an attacking threat. The further up the field that Pogba has license to roam, the better for the team. Judging from the early returns — consecutive 4-0 victories over West Ham and Swansea City — the signing of the ultra-defensive Matić has turned United into an offensive juggernaut.
Where last season saw too many nail-biting finishes, Manchester United now kills off matches with a flurry of late goals. This looks a classic Mourinho team — tall, strong, and imposing — that will wear opposing defenses down. And tired defenders stand little chance against the rejuvenated Pogba, who has scored a goal after the 80th minute in both games this season.
He can now go on the attack without fear of leaving his teammates vulnerable on the counter. This new creative focus allows Pogba to put his energy into terrorizing defenses, not tracking back. After all, he was not 2016’s marquis signing for his defense, but rather his dynamism.
Speaking of that transfer, don’t underestimate how freeing it must feel to no longer be the most expensive footballer in the world. Paris Saint-Germain’s purchase of Neymar from Barcelona for the staggering sum of €222 million has blown the previous record — Pogba’s £89 million — out of the water. Not a match went by last season without commentators scrutinizing Pogba’s performance through the lens of his transfer fee.
The ultra-confident and assured Pogba gave little sign that the attention bothered him, but nevertheless it can’t hurt to pass that burden off to Neymar. In fact, he recently admitted, “Last season the first question from everyone was always about the price tag. Now everyone is asking about the football — that tells you everything.”
Two matches into the 2017/18 Premier League, Pogba already has two goals and seems offensively reborn with Matić now assuming the midfield’s defensive duties. Best of all, Manchester United looks to be in fine fettle at the start of this pivotal season. This should truly be Paul Pogba’s time to shine.