A big factor in the revival of Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been the equally impressive upturn in the form of Paul Pogba. It is well known that by the end of Jose Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford his relationship with Pogba had broken down almost completely, but the immediate improvement under Ole – four goals and two assists in the first three matches – still took United fans by surprise. Now, he’s in double figures for goals and assists for the season. Are we now seeing the best of Pogba?
Looking for reasons why Pogba is producing so much more on the pitch than he was for much of the first half of the season, the most important one surely has to be Mourinho leaving. Things between the two had deteriorated to the point where a player who should be at the heart of a successful Manchester United team was reduced to cameo appearances from the bench in the last three games before Mourinho finally left Old Trafford. Pogba scored just four times in 12 games under Mourinho and often looked like a player who wanted to be anywhere else, whereas he immediately started scoring and creating again under his replacement. So is his improved form down to what Solskjaer is doing or is it just because Mourinho is gone?
The relationship between the interim manager and his star player genuinely seems to be a positive one. It is important to remember that they already had a working relationship from Pogba’s first spell at United between 2009 and 2011 – when Ole was also there as manager of the reserve team. Solskjaer has talked about this and has publicly praised Pogba in his interviews since taking over. By contrast Mourinho made him the captain before the start of the season, only to strip him of this in a very public act of scapegoating and then describe him as a “virus” affecting the whole team. The obvious passion Solskjaer feels for the club and his generally sunny personality, which is in marked contrast to that of his predecessor, seem to have rubbed off on all of the players and are a big reason why Pogba is performing better on the pitch.
Those who say the change is down to getting rid of a manager he didn’t like to think that the Frenchman has been unprofessional and that he was guilty of insulting United fans with his displays during the first half of the campaign. What this ignores though is that Solskjaer has radically changed United’s tactical approach to matches, with a far greater emphasis on attacking football based on retaining possession of the ball. This has seen Pogba weigh in with goals but has also freed him to show the playmaking quality that he is capable of from deep-lying positions, leading to four assists in his first six games under the Norwegian. He was hardly the only player to be performing poorly by the time Mourinho went, with other attack-minded players like Martial and Rashford also appearing subdued, so it seems more likely that the negative tactics were stifling him.
When assessing the Pogba situation, United fans do need to be cautious though, because it has only been 10 games since Solskjaer took the reins. We are likely to have a much clearer idea of whether the player really has turned the corner by the end of the season – just as we will have a better idea of whether Solskjaer has what it takes to be the permanent manager. The games against City and Liverpool in particular will be telling as, painful though it is for all Manchester United fans to acknowledge, they are currently the two best sides in the league. At one stage Pogba looked a sure bet to leave though, just as an approach for Mauricio Pochettino in the summer looked guaranteed, but now those keen on football betting might have to reconsider where they put their money.
The biggest tests are yet to come, but Pogba is one of the best midfielders in the world and if he retains his current enthusiasm he should make the difference during the second half of the season.