Credit: Meghdad Madadi / Attribution: Tasnim News Agency
As the old Eminem song goes, “will the real Slim Shady please stand up”. For the majority of his second spell at Old Trafford, the same question has been asked about Paul Pogba by many Manchester United supporters. The player who came through the system at Old Trafford has not really hit the heights, nor the expectations expected of him since he returned to the club from Juventus, following a then world record transfer fee of £89m.
In the four and a half years since returning to Manchester, he has been part of a club which has won a Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League. When he was first a part of the set up at Old Trafford the club, under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, was regularly winning Premier League titles and competing at the business end of the UEFA Champions League. The main reason why Pogba was purchased back by the club was to try and get Manchester United back to the top of the game both domestically and on the continent.
During his first season back at Old Trafford, the club won those three honours mentioned previously. The club won the Community Shield just before he returned by beating the reigning champions Leicester City at Wembley. However, Pogba was involved in the League Cup and Europa League successes later that season and opened the scoring against Ajax in the Europa League Final in Stockholm.
Those trophies came in Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge of United. It appeared that it would be a springboard to further success. However, despite finishing second the following season, Manchester United were miles off the pace set by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, with a defeat at home before Christmas effectively confirming to many that City were going to go on and win the League.
A fantastic performance by Paul Pogba in the second half of the 3-2 victory at the Etihad towards the end of that season, which denied City the chance to clinch the title that evening at the expense of United, is a real standout moment from his time at the club. A poor exit from the Champions League to Sevilla, where Pogba was dropped for Scott McTominay, and a very public falling out with Mourinho at the beginning of the following season put Pogba and the management of the club at loggerheads.
Having returned from the 2018 World Cup in Russia as a world champion, with a brilliant performance in the final against Croatia, Paul Pogba appeared to be very much a man with the world at his feet. The public falling out with Mourinho, with pictures from the Carrington training ground being shown across all of the sports news channels and media, shown a real breakdown in the relationship between player and manager.
As it transpired, the manager was the one to leave the club. A defeat at Anfield before Christmas 2018, where Pogba was left on the bench, was the final straw for the hierarchy at Old Trafford. The atmosphere at the club had turned toxic. The manager also had public spats with Luke Shaw and the board over the lack of backing during the Summer of 2018 to close the gap on Manchester City.
Despite Jose Mourinho departing Old Trafford, the noises coming from Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola suggested that the French World Cup winner was looking to depart the club for the second time. This certainly turned many supporters of the club against the player and his agent, with the thinking being that Pogba should control what his agent says or that his agent was actually just making public the feelings of the player.
With real top drawer performances from Pogba relatively few and far between since his return to the club, he was seen by a large number of Manchester United supporters as expendable and that he should be moved on. The stand out “virus” quote from Jose Mourinho in the forefront of many minds.
In appointing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, initially as Caretaker Manager, the club wanted to steady the ship, take stock and plan for the future. As it transpired the upturn in fortunes, culminating in the brilliant victory in Paris in March 2019, meant that Solskjaer was appointed as permanent Manager of the club. Upon the return of Solskjaer to the club, following the defeat at Anfield, we started to see more impressive performances from Paul Pogba, with him initially being granted a free role behind the forwards.
As it turned out, the 2018-19 season petered out, with United somehow, in the end, missing out on the top 4 after Solskjaer’s side had turned around their season to look like they would finish in the Champions League places. During that Summer, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer set upon trying to rebuild the squad and moving on players that he felt didn’t fit his vision and the ethos of Manchester United. These included big names such as Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. However, Paul Pogba was a man that Ole wanted to stay.
During Pogba’s first spell with the club, Solskjaer was his manager during his stint in charge of the Reserves. The Norwegian, and his Assistant Mike Phelan, know the player well. They know the ability that Paul Pogba possesses. It is just a case of ensuring that he reaches his undoubted potential and shows his ability on a consistent basis. This is something, of course, that the player himself also needs to take responsibility for.
Last season, the club struggled during the first half of the season, with Pogba missing large swathes of that period through injury. The January window saw the club purchase Bruno Fernandes and he has been the catalyst for the revival of United’s fortunes. Following Project Restart, when the Premier League returned from the initial covid-19 lockdown, Paul Pogba was back in the side and playing in tandem with Bruno Fernandes.
Since the arrival of the Portugese International at Old Trafford, Manchester United have accumulated more Premier League points than any other club, and Paul Pogba has played a part in this. During the last few weeks, especially, we are now starting to see the real Paul Pogba. There have been match winning goals at both Burnley and Fulham which have put United top of the pile going into the second half of the season.
Looking in from the outside, it appears that Paul Pogba is a man that needs to feel the love from his Manager and those around him. Like any human being, a negative environment is not good for anyone. He is now married and has a young son too. He appears happier and calmer. He also seems to be someone who wants to be a part of something. He said after the Fulham game last week that “I love winning, it’s all about winning”.
That first season under Jose Mourinho, when things appeared to be heading in the right direction, saw Paul Pogba as a major part of the team and enjoying his football. The subsequent years, when Mourinho’s persona and the atmosphere at the club became more negative, saw Pogba also not perform to anywhere near the best of his ability and potentially want to leave Manchester again.
In having a Manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who Pogba knows well and who will put an arm around the player, and possibly indulge him at times, this can be seen as a contributing factor to the upturn in his form for the club. The fact that on the pitch the club look more of a threat and that the dressing room atmosphere is now much more positive with more leaders at the club also appears to have had a good effect on Paul Pogba.
The real Paul Pogba is now starting to stand up. There are many reasons for this and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him sign a new contract with the club. It seems like he has bought into the vision of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club, and with him turning 28 in March this year he is approaching his peak.
The fact that clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona are struggling financially with the covid crisis, PSG have issues with their domestic TV rights deal and that Juventus tend not to spend big on transfer fees, any previous avenues away from Old Trafford appear to have closed or are closing. The player has certainly knuckled down and is showing just how good he is. If he can continue to do so then Manchester United will be getting the player they knew they were signing and the trophies he was brought in to help the club win will surely follow.