There’s a famous story about an Irish politician in the late 1970s seeking the leadership of his party. It was a divided contest and following victory, he brought his opponents and their supporters into his office. ‘You backed the wrong horse,’ he told each of them before dismissing them. To that politician, the past was important and their characters were irredeemable. They were dead to him.
For a portion of Manchester United fans, the same is true of Paul Pogba.
Paul Pogba never found his best form for Manchester United under José Mourinho. There were spells. In his first season he played well on his debut against Southampton, away to Crystal Palace and in the comeback against Middlesbrough before New Year’s. In his second season, he played well in the games away to Arsenal, Everton and City. But he never demonstrated that top drawer, game winning potential on a consistent basis.
But for some reason, he has performed excellently in his three games under new interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
That aforementioned portion of Old Trafford fans see this as indicative of Pogba’s flawed personality. The irredeemable showman who should not be accepted at Old Trafford. To these fans, the Frenchman’s sudden resurgence of form under Solskjaer is indicative of the fact that Pogba did not try for Mourinho, that he had downed tools and did not justify his outlandish wages.
These supporters will argue that Pogba has not lived up the hype of his move to Manchester United. Too many stories regarding late night barber visits to hotels on the eve of fixtures, the launch of the Pogba Twitter emoji (to be differentiated from Pogmoji) at a home fixture against Liverpool in January 2017 during which Pogba put in arguably his worst ever performance in a United shirt or the fact that his Twitter account includes no mention to that fact that Pogba plays for Manchester United.
These are all valid complaints, but criticisms regarding professionalism can be levelled at any number of Manchester United players going back to Busby’s era. Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel decided to have a bare-knuckle boxing match on a preseason tour on the eve of the 1998-99 Premier League season. Rio Ferdinand met with the Chelsea Chief Executive while re-negotiating his Manchester United contract in 2005. Wayne Rooney threatened to leave for Manchester City in 2010. Why were the same accusations of ‘downing tools’ not levelled at the David Moyes team?
Each of the aforementioned players are still seen as club legends because of their better days in Manchester United shirts. It now seems as though we are starting to see the better days of Paul Pogba’s career in a Manchester United shirt and it may not necessarily come down to attitude or application.
José Mourinho was the manager who signed Paul Pogba. It could be assumed that there was some rapport there at the beginning between the manager and his new star player and that Pogba would endeavour to put his best foot forward to stake a player towards truly being one of the world’s best players, as he was being touted as when he arrived in 2016.
I was at his debut against Southampton at Old Trafford and he played well, with lots of tricks, flicks and balls played from the outside of his foot. But he was then partnered in a two-man midfield with Marouane Fellaini and given less license to roam forward.
The Paul Pogba performance level was consistent for Manchester United in his first two years under Mourinho. It was underwhelming. There was no major drop off, or apparent signs of disinterest. He had games where he played well, but he also had games where he was poor. Was he always treated fairly by Mourinho? Arguably not.
Is there an argument that Pogba downed tools this season? Perhaps, but it is not an entirely compelling argument either. Like many of the players, Pogba underperformed but his form has always been inconsistent. There were claims that Mourinho had lost the dressing room in early October, but then the Newcastle game contradicted this rumour. Pogba performed excellently in the game against Everton.
The pundits have been diagnosing the problems since he returned to Old Trafford. “He can’t play in a two-man midfield.” “He can’t be given defensive responsibilities.” “He needs to be played further forward.” These were the conditions that the likes of Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher believed Paul Pogba needed in order to fully prosper.
Which is exactly what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done. He has played Pogba further forward; given him licence to roam because the defensive responsibilities lie elsewhere and it has worked. The liberated Pogba, the number ten Pogba is the player that Manchester United signed in 2016 and it is reaping rewards. Beyond Paul Pogba even, Marcus Rashford has equally appeared like a player reinvigorated due to Solskjaer’s tactical liberation.
Manchester United fans have finally witnessed the Paul Pogba they signed from Juventus in 2016. The cynics, the sceptics and the Mourinho-zealots need to move on. Find another martyr, and one who is not staking a claim to be United’s best player.
United fans should be rejoicing that they are seeing the talent of Paul Pogba finally.
It does require a little bit of understanding and forgiveness on the fans’ behalves admittedly. That doesn’t come cheap. All will agree that Pogba has not provided his best football at United. But the fans have been patient. They will forgive Pogba’s underwhelming performances and consign them to history.
Pogba’s part of the deal is that he owes it to the fans to remain at the club. The Barcelona talk must end. He should identify that he now needs repay the club that have invested so much money in him and help make United successful once again.