The France midfielder recorded four assists in Man United’s 5-1 evisceration of Leeds
Few can accomplish more in 75 minutes than they did in an entire season. Paul Pogba came off with 15 minutes to go on opening day and four assists to his name. He finished the 2020/21 Premier League campaign with three. Perhaps that is Pogba in a nutshell, the player whose best is so good it puts him in rarefied company and yet who completed last season by being statistically less creative than Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Pogba’s Euro 2020 seemed to consist of a one-man pass-of-the-tournament competition. Perhaps his 2021/22 began in the same vein, though the initial leader must be the longest of his defence-splitting balls, weighted perfectly, curled into Mason Greenwood’s path, in the manner of an 80-foot putt on a sloping green. That it came three minutes after Luke Ayling had rifled Leeds level, and allowed Greenwood to level, showed artistry was allied with importance.
This was the defining moment in a 5-1 win. Before and after, Pogba made incision look easy, piercing defences by caressing passes. Only six players had ever previously made four goals in a Premier League match, with Harry Kane the most recent. “I’m pretty sure Paul could do five or six [assists] in one game,” said Bruno Fernandes, the beneficiary of two of his four.
If Fernandes’ new-found enthusiasm for bursting in behind defences and the addition of Jadon Sancho offer reasons, in giving Pogba more runners he can release from deep, a player who has represented an enigma during five seasons of his second stint in Manchester looked content with a wandering brief. The debate over Pogba’s best berth remains unresolved, and has been complicated by Fernandes’ status as the automatic choice as a No10, but the Frenchman started on the left, strolled infield and took up the Portuguese’s position whenever he vacated it.
“We gave him freedom,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Sidekicks kicked off the season spectacularly, one with four assists, the other with three goals.
“Good players can always play together,” added Solskjaer. On such days, Pogba is one of the finest. Part of the frustration with him is that he can be. The man who raised the roof for transfer fees when United paid £89m for him has a high ceiling. He is the World Cup winner who, for a while in the summer, seemed likelier than Gianluigi Donnarumma to be named the outstanding individual at Euro 2020.
There is nevertheless the sense that his profile has been greater than his achievements since he returned to Old Trafford. There has been inconsistency, injury and underachievement, some of it United’s, some of it Pogba’s. There has been Jose Mourinho and his propensity to scapegoat and create enemies. Solskjaer’s brand of management is more supportive and less antagonistic. Perhaps he will be rewarded by Pogba realising that huge potential this year.
If every year feels pivotal for Pogba, maybe this will be the one where he maintains the sort of form he showed in four games at the European Championship and 75 minutes against Leeds. Certainly Pogba can respond to the presence of high-class players around him; it is an explanation for why he tended to deliver more for France than United, but Solskjaer has now acquired and developed a formidable attacking armoury.
Perhaps, though, the sands have shifted in the footballing economy in such a way that Pogba has a renewed appreciation of United, and not merely because he is no longer surrounded by mediocrity and Mourinho’s moaning. United will never recoup their £89m. Pogba’s prospects of a switch to Real Madrid, Barcelona or even back to Juventus have receded. Even his impending availability on a free transfer next summer may not offer ample opportunities; perhaps only Paris Saint-Germain could and would rival the wages United can pay.
There was long the sense that a player who turns 29 in March had one big move left in him. If a transfer passed the passer by, perhaps the relocation will instead be rebranding United as title contenders. Certainly he has the talent to be the difference-maker. The challenge is to sustain the superlative.