“I’ll always give my best to the fans and my teammates no matter what’s going on. #pogfeelings.”
That’s Paul Pogba, on Instagram, after converting from the spot against Leicester City to begin Manchester United’s 2018-19 slog. And you knew it would be a slog because he didn’t really celebrate, which didn’t do much to quell the building chatter that the 25-year-old midfielder might be eyeing a second exit from Old Trafford, since things had gotten pretty bad there. This was August, at the cagey start to his third year under manager José Mourinho, who by then had already gone full Third-Year Mourinho: He complained about the inadequacy of his personnel and dedicated himself to digging a goodwill hole with a backhoe for the entire preseason tour, from which United took zero wins. And—maybe most glaringly—the manager couldn’t bring himself to tell Pogba, who’d just won a World Cup with France, “good job.”
Last season Mourinho adopted the bold strategy of alienating his best player, but the truth is that there’s only ever been room for one star in a Mourinho team, and that is Mourinho’s system: miserable, defensive soccer. Whoever has the ball has fear. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. Whoever makes a mistake will promptly be subbed off and dropped for the next match. All fine when Mourinho’s system is panning out, but this season it decidedly wasn’t: By mid-December, United sat sixth after the club’s worst-ever start to the Premier League, and Mourinho had lost the dressing room. Moreover, United consistently seemed there for the taking against teams they shouldn’t have had problems with. So José was sacked.
That’s Paul Pogba celebrating his second brace in three outings since Mourinho’s departure, after spending the final three matches of Mourinho’s reign on the bench. United’s new manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (a former United super-sub, which is apt), took over in the interim and, in the wake of so much harrumphing and creative repression, has made the radical decision to smile and let the boys play. The philosophy has paid off with four consecutive league wins and the most productive month of Pogba’s career so far: four goals, three assists, and several gleeful dances.
To put too fine a point on it, it’s as if a dense fog has lifted: Solskjaer is saying all the right things. The fullbacks are getting involved in the attack. Center back Victor Lindelöf, once scared of his own shadow, looks solid. Romelu Lukaku is scoring. And most importantly, Pogba, once a crown jewel, then a misfit brought low by erratic team selection and public hiding, is fun again and playing like the most expensive Premier League player ever and one of the best in the world at his position, both of which he is. On the trip to Newcastle alone, he teed up the game-sealing goal with a tackle, weathered a horrible challenge from Jonjo Shelvey, and then trolled Shelvey about it on Twitter after the game. Are you enjoying the Pogbaissance? You would have to be dead inside—or Claude Makelele—not to be.
A question that persists—in TV studios, in pubs, and online—is that of professionalism: Where was this United and this Pogba before, when Mourinho was around? Did United players purposefully turn in middling performance after middling performance? And likewise, did they let their manager down? This is an unfortunate side effect of the unctuous, absurd footballspeak that lends itself to blanket moralizing and so too makes people forget about the times that they worked at a job they hated. Giving your best for the fans and your teammates is well and good in theory, but in reality, if you’re getting dressed down verbally every day and forced to complete tasks outside your purview without getting paid overtime, are you not punching out the second the clock strikes 5? I think David Rudin at StatsBomb hits it square on the nose: “Getting more out of workers, whether in an office building or on the football pitch, is how managers justify their employment.”
So, having certainly changed the prevailing attitude toward Manchester United and brought them to within six points of fourth-place Chelsea and a potential Champions League spot, it’s possible that Solskjaer may earn himself the full-time job. United have been making eyes at Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino as next season’s replacement, but Solskjaer is here and doing the job now. This past Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup win against Reading makes it five wins on the trot, which equals the club record for a new manager set by Sir Matt Busby. That’s not nothing.
However, it can’t be discounted that Solskjaer’s United ain’t really played nobody: Doing the business against Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth, Newcastle, and Reading hints at the consistency required for a top-four finish, but far from guarantees it’ll happen. They’ve yet to play one of the Top Six in their current form and, even against smaller sides, have shown defensive weaknesses. United are on literal vacation at the moment, at a training camp in Dubai, but this coming Sunday presents Solskjaer’s first real test, against his would-be successor. Pochettino’s Tottenham are on a three-win streak of their own, having just beaten Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. Spurs also have a knack for ruthlessly pulling apart disorganized defenses. But Paul Pogba seems up to the challenge. Unbothered by it, even. How unbothered? This was Paul Pogba on Wednesday afternoon.
Paul Pogba controlling the ball backwards mid interview is probably the best thing you’ll see today. Too good. pic.twitter.com/YsM0uhZxzZ— The Man Utd Way (@TheManUtdWay) January 9, 2019
If he’s not worried, then I’m not either. Man, it’s good to (maybe) have that old thing back.