It’s the 96th minute of Manchester United’s recent game against Tottenham Hotspur. United, with a 2-1 lead, have had Spurs on the ropes for most of the second half but are well aware that the lead could evaporate. Normally, in these situations, players from the side that is leading will head for the corner, retaining the ball in a safe area to run down the clock. But Paul Pogba, receiving the ball in Spurs’ half, decides to attack, dancing around two players with Zidanesque poise and laying the ball off for Mason Greenwood. 3-1 United. Game over.
For many pundits, Pogba was the man of the match. While United – and Pogba – struggled in the first half, the second half was impressive. Pogba, who moved into a more central position, ran the show, fuelling attack after attack and doing his bit in defence. It was a performance typical of Pogba in 2021, and a complete reversal of what we saw in large parts of 2020.
Last year saw a breakdown between Pogba and Manchester United fans. The player’s agent, Mino Raiola, claimed in December, “I can say it is over for Pogba at Manchester United”. The timing of the statement – before a crucial Champions League game – was explosive. Pundits across the football spectrum criticised Raiola, but Pogba, too, got a lot of criticism. Many fans wondered why the Frenchman couldn’t control his agent and why he was silent on the matter. Some wondered whether he would play for United again.
Solskjaer took an unexpected approach
The United boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has to deal with the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, as has every other manager who has followed the great Scot. After the Raiola incident, some wondered what Ferguson would have done in the same situation. Pogba may have been exiled, and United surely would never have done business with Raiola again. But Solskjaer took a different approach, putting an arm around the player and saying little to the media.
Pogba’s performances improved dramatically after Christmas. Not only his performances, but his attitude and demeanour seemed markedly different. Asked to play out of position for several games as part of a midfield base, he did the ‘dirty work’ for the team. Bruno Fernandes was the main fulcrum of attack – the headline maker – and Pogba seemed happy to play second fiddle. But Pogba’s performances continued to grow, whereas Fernandes – clearly fatigued – has become less central.
An injury to Pogba in mid-February coincided with a downturn in United’s form. They had topped the league at one point, but they soon lost ground to Manchester City. The latter is now 1/1000 to win the title with MansionBet’s football odds, with United at 66/1. But it’s a valid question to ask whether that gap would exist had Pogba not missed several games? Since his return, United have been much better in the league and seem almost nailed on for second place. The Europa League is still within sight, however.
Pogba has won admirers for his attitude
Pogba can be a difficult player to appreciate, even when he is playing well. He has a propensity towards risk that irks fans and managers. But that risk-taking also leads to reward. He wants to create, score goals, drive forward, and he has the engine and skill set to do it. If you can come to accept that Pogba will lose possession on occasion because that is simply the way he plays, then you can better appreciate the player. That was on evidence against Spurs, but the rewards outweighed the risks.
The majority of United fans today would likely want to see Pogba stay at the club, although some might find it hard to forgive. His attitude has been exemplary since the Raiola affair, and he has even won some grudging respect from ‘old school’ pundits who clearly don’t like the player. Ironically, it has been the non-Pogba qualities that have been most pleasing – tracking back, winning headers, last-ditch tackles.
It’s not clear whether some of the financially challenged clubs around Europe can afford to bid for Pogba this summer: certainly not the sums that Raiola dreams about. But if the Frenchman stays at United and continues to play with the same dedication, United fans should be content. Bruno Fernandes has become the main man at Old Trafford, but it might be the rejuvenated Pogba who holds the keys to the Premier League title next season.