Purring Paul Pogba turning even his biggest doubters into believers at Manchester United

Vithushan Ehantharajah
·7 min read
Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba (Getty Images)
Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba (Getty Images)

When Mesut Ozil finally ended his near eight-year association with Arsenal, it came with the worst kind of closure for their fans. Two factions in conflict during his final year at the club seeing an end to a relationship both hoped would yield more.

At his best, Ozil was a walking wonder. Someone who could turn weathered adults into awestruck juveniles with actions big or small. The kind of footballer you only get so many of in a lifetime and should count yourself lucky if they pull on the shirt you adore. And yet, the bitter stand-off between Arsenal and Ozil reached such a level that few could argue the time had come to part ways. Neither side has won, one just lost a little bit less than the other.

The German World Cup winner has become a fascinating case study in modern football discourse, of the extremes that can exist at one club around one man. Now Fenerbahce is his new home and Arsenal have a younger core to fawn over. When the dust settles, perhaps both will reflect this break served both parties well. But as the Premier League waved goodbye to one mercurial figure, another was working at uniting both sides of the debate around him.

On Wednesday night, Paul Pogba produced one of his best performances for Manchester United. Even taking in the caveat of a 2-1 result achieved against 18th place Fulham, the Frenchman's craft – never in doubt – was reinforced by diligence, graft and a sense of self-worth that shone above his teammates. A display that was as much "look at me" as it was "come with me", dragging United back to the top of the table.

He tackled more (four) and regained possession more (nine) than any other player on the pitch. Despite being the deepest of United's midfielders, he played more passes in the opposition half than anyone else.

Pogba continued his fine form at FulhamReuters
Pogba continued his fine form at FulhamReuters

You could call it all-action if you like. But in its realest sense, it was all-Pogba: delivering on all promised onto him by his biggest cheerleaders. His cult and legend distilled into 94 minutes on a dank west London evening.

Acolytes aren’t drawn in by conscientiousness, but reverence to those that reside on a higher plane. And in the 65th minute, the sceptics felt the tug of what has drawn so many to the altar of Pogba. In the space of six seconds, he unleashed a stunning succession of moments, temporarily assuming control of the forces at play to shift the match off its axis.

The controlling of a high ball with the nonchalance of someone turning their palm to the sky to check if it's raining. The three deft touches accompanied by pop-and-lock shrugs of his shoulder to get away from two Fulham defenders. The reload of his feet to curl into the far corner with his left foot. A match decided on the whim of genius deciding gravity, a lack of space and a weaker foot should be no inconvenience.

“We've always said Paul Pogba can do everything,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said afterwards. "He can play wide, in central midfield, create chances and score goals. He's really come on. The key was getting him match fit. Today he was in midfield and he was so committed and got tackles in as well as his goal."

The problem over Pogba's five years at Old Trafford has been his brief, both the role assigned and how it was interpreted. As a midfielder who can "more or less do everything", he has been guilty of trying to do too much, a trait that can be spun either depending on your side of the fence. A talent taking on responsibility or an ego too big to follow instructions.

But Solskjaer has provided the 27-year-old with some necessary parameters and personnel around him to narrow his focus without stifling the best bits.

Against Fulham he was allowed to roam, but did so with the knowledge that Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes were going to operate, essentially, as primary and secondary strikers. Pogba left them to the middle and did his searching out wide on the right, while the energetic Fred covered him in the centre.

When it comes to opposition higher in the table, such as Liverpool last Sunday, he is deployed on the left to a modicum of success. In the 0-0 draw at Anfield, he struggled to cover for Luke Shaw at left back, but was able to be a nuisance in the final third. The best chance of the match would fall to him, darting into the box and firing a powerful effort straight at Alisson. He was so disappointed with the miss that he apologised to his teammates in the dressing room after the match.

This particular role is something of a back-handed compliment from his manager. Pogba is wanted on the field but still not trusted centrally in the biggest matches. For the time being, it seems he will continually flitter between frontman and bassist.

Nevertheless, it is an impressive about-turn for a player thought to be on his way out last March, and then again at the start of 2021. Here he is, at his most accomplished in a red shirt, emerging as a vital cog in a thrilling title-challenging outfit, who lead the race at the halfway stage.

"I would like to say so," Solskjaer answered when asked if this is the most focused Pogba has been under his watch. "He's enjoying his football, he's happy, he's mentally very happy, he's physically in very good shape.

"I'm very happy with his performance. I know what he can do and it was all about getting Paul fit: running fit, match fit."

Pogba's three goals have all contributed to victories: the 2-1 here, the winner against Burnley last week and the equaliser in the 3-1 turnaround against West Ham at the start of December. When you throw that into the mix with the rest of his work, there is a tangible sense the world-beater United thought they were signing from Juventus for £89million is starting to reveal himself.

That may also be down to the team's ambitions matching his own. That, finally, they are in sync. "I love winning," Pogba told BT Sport. "It's all about winning. I will always be happy when I win, and I will always be happy when I'm on the pitch."

It is premature to say this is a corner turned even though it does feel like Pogba and Manchester United are taking that turn together, hand-in-hand. Only a month has passed since his agent Mina Raiola was touting his wares about, claiming discontent behind the scenes. Though Solskjaer has handled the situation well, the ill-feeling still bubbles away. The distrust of Pogba is partly distrust of Raiola. Perhaps that will never go away.

But Pogba is doing what he can to shed the polarity. His form an olive branch between those for and against him, something Ozil could not offer during his last nine months of inactivity in north London. The longer he spent off the pitch, the more toxic the conversation became. The man they were scrapping over unable to broker a truce.

It’s hard not to think Pogba is now the sole torch-bearer for mavericks in the Premier League. And that he owes it to the likes of Ozil to embrace the luxury of opportunity to state his case on their behalf. Extending his purple patch will build faith among his detractors. Perhaps only a title will wipe out all doubt completely, such were the expectations he has failed to meet so far beyond a Europa League and League Cup.

But as with the Gunners and Ozil, even United fans uncertain of Pogba wish to see him thrive, whether this is his last season at the club or not. To show himself as the United icon he could be, exciting them with the brilliance plenty speak of but is only now revealing itself to all. Deep down, they would love to be proved wrong. Even the biggest doubters were believers once.

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