“When he struts he is some player.”
Peter Drury’s remarks as Manchester United cruised to victory over BSC Young Boys to open their UEFA Champions League campaign couldn’t have been more indicative of the narrative surrounding Paul Pogba’s United career. It was one of the first of many victories this season orchestrated by the World Cup winner, a welcome stroll through Switzerland before returning to an increasingly dire Premier League campaign. Pogba and then manager José Mourinho were clearly at odds with how the team should play, and the Frenchman took the opportunity against the Swiss champions to play dominant attacking football. He easily took charge, scoring a brace and assisting his countryman, Anthony Martial, to seal a 3-0 win.
Over the next couple of months Pogba produced a few more memorable performances, and was crucial in getting United over the line in wins that kept them alive in the league table. Wins over Newcastle, Everton, and Bournemouth kept fans hoping for a top 4 spot, but dropped points against Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool exposed United’s poor defensive abilities at the back and in midfield. Mourinho was sacked, and his loyalists were quick to blame Pogba. The same lazy criticisms were used against Pogba and his teammates, who were branded as unwilling followers of Mourinho.
Then, United were freed from the parked bus by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who knows a thing or two about dominant attacking football. Pogba was finally “unlocked,” and he’s been leading his team to victory nearly every weekend with precision and style. He now has 14 goals and 10 assists in all competitions (11 and 8 in the Premier League), and United are back in the top 4. Manchester United are a regular goal threat once again, but the credit isn’t just due to Solskjaer. Pogba didn’t suddenly realize his abilities, he’s just allowed to use them for once. His quality can no longer be undermined, and when the end of season awards voting begins for PFA Player of the Year Pogba’s name simply has to enter the conversation.
The PFA Player of the Year award hasn’t been won by a Manchester United player since Wayne Rooney in 2010, who racked up 26 Premier League goals in an ultimately unsuccessful bid for a 4th straight league title. We’ve seen from past winners like N’golo Kante, Eden Hazard, and Ryan Giggs that statistics alone are not the only factor, and the undeniable evidence of influence can carry the votes as well. But even if it was down to statistics Pogba is pretty well off. He currently has more goals and assists than any midfielder in Europe’s top 5 leagues, and shows no signs of stopping.
Last year’s winner, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, is having another prolific season, and is leading the league in scoring again. He is joined by teammate Virgil Van Dijk and Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero as the favorites to win the award this season. All have had worthy campaigns so far, but Pogba’s role in Manchester United’s quick rise into the top 4 justifies his candidacy as well. Especially if he continues his form in United’s remaining fixtures against top 6 opponents.
Silverware is always important to Manchester United. Silverware from competitions will always be the biggest priority, but if Pogba can keep up his world class performances and nab an individual award his success will be celebrated as well. He has helped put his team in contention for a Champions League qualification spot, and United are still in both the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League this season. Unfortunately, the questionable second yellow issued to Pogba against PSG means he will miss the return leg in Paris. United will have to overcome a 0-2 deficit without the Frenchman, but are through to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup thanks to his brilliant display against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Considering how different the mood at Old Trafford is compared to early December, it’s hard to say where United will be another 2 months from now, nearing the end of the season. Their situation in the league has drastically changed, but they need to keep the momentum rolling. Paul Pogba has been a key force to maintaining this run, and if he keeps it up he and his team will be just fine.