Manchester United tried subtly to suppress Paul Pogba’s victory celebrations in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s dismissal last week but in the two games since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over, the back-in-favour midfielder has partied, somewhat appropriately, like it’s 1999.
The denials over that Instagram post didn’t wash with many, while reports that Pogba was strutting around Carrington while proclaiming that Mourinho had ‘f*cked with the wrong baller’ rang more true for the majority of observers who witnessed even from afar the relationship between the former manager and his record signing deteriorate to point where one, or both, simply had to go.
Since Solskjaer flew in to take the reins, Pogba has played like the midfielder everyone knows he can be, not the one carrying a World Cup-sized chip on his shoulder through the first sixteen matches of the campaign. The France star has got the manager on board and the supporters firmly back onside with two assists and two goals in two matches.
There were doubts over what reception the player might get from the travelling support at Cardiff last weekend from supporters tired at the bitching between Mourinho and Pogba and fed up with the pair of them. An apathetic rather than an acrimonious response was always most likely, but the fact Pogba has returned to the dressing room shirtless twice this week having handed over his sweaty garment to a grateful fan tells its own story.
At full-time in many games this season, that jersey might well have been in pristine condition, such is the way Pogba has coasted through matches. But the 25-year-old is not only performing with a freedom not previously enjoyed, most pleasingly, he also appears to be playing to prove a point.
Solskjaer has emphasised the need for United players to enjoy and express themselves, which must have been music to the midfielder’s ears. But the caretaker manager has also reminded everyone of the standards expected at Old Trafford to earn that right to perform. Pogba has failed to fulfil those basic requirements too often, not just this season, but the limited evidence we have from wins over two Premier League strugglers suggests he has taken on board the warning which accompanied his clean slate.
All-round showing from Pogba v Huddersfield.
– Most touches on the ball (117)
– Most passes (90)
– Most possession gained (10)
– Most shots (5)
— Shamoon Hafez (@ShamoonHafez) December 26, 2018
It helps that Solskjaer is playing more to Pogba’s strengths, and those of everyone else too. The manager’s defence, the only problem he inherited greater than Pogba, is protected now by two holding midfielders, with Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Fred being rotated around the two roles. It was once thought that Pogba would be perfect for one of those positions, given his passing range and his mobility, but his lack of discipline makes him a passenger when sat next Matic.
Pogba has spoken in the past of his desire to play as a No.10 and Solskjaer has given him the platform to back up the big talk. The midfielder naturally drifts to the left but under the new manager, Pogba has greater freedom to wander either side of the channels, dovetailing twice with Jesse Lingard, who deserves credit for offering the counter balance to his team-mate’s whims.
Pogba has two more games to build on a hugely-satisfying start to work under Solskjaer. United host a Bournemouth side fresh from a whooping at Spurs, before they go to Newcastle next week. Pogba has unfinished business at St James’ Park, where a wretched performance prompted him to be hooked by Mourinho during a miserable defeat last season. The outlook for United and Pogba now looks rather more bright.