The World Cup winner is set to depart this summer, with his contract up in 2022, but he has a vital role to play in his team’s championship challenge
While Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope was picking the ball out of the back of the net after Paul Pogba’s wonderfully struck volley at Turf Moor on Tuesday night, the Manchester United midfielder was over in the corner flag celebrating.
The Frenchman’s joyous mood unsurprisingly carried over into his post-match interview as a beaming Pogba told-pitchside reporters: “I am always happy when I win and today we won, so I am happy, also because we played well and that we are top!”
Rants from his agent aside, the 26-year-old is certainly not giving off the impression that he is unhappy at United and wants out as soon as possible.
In fact, since that explosive public outburst from Mino Raiola nearly six weeks ago, Pogba has been performing at close to the peak of his powers, showing United exactly what they will be missing when he is gone.
His man of the match-winning performance at Burnley means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side go into Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash with Liverpool three points clear of their bitter rivals – which was inconceivable when they sat 15th at the start of November, after a tame loss at home to Arsenal.
Pogba has played his part in United’s unbeaten league run. He is showing his quality on a consistent basis and, perhaps more significantly, fulfilling his promise to continue giving 100 per cent for his team.
However, credit also has to go to Solskjaer for what has been a perfect display of man-management, with the Norwegian succeeding in getting the very best out of one of the most talented but enigmatic characters in the game today.
It would have been easy to get dragged into a war of words with Raiola, to have sidelined Pogba until he got the move his agent claimed he wanted and to make an example of the World Cup winner.
Solskjaer, after all, is a big believer in the old adage that no player is bigger than the club. However, he also understood just how important Pogba could be in terms of United turning their season around.
“I’ve always said Paul [Pogba] is a big player for us, he’s a good character in the dressing room, he’s someone the lads look to, he’s a world champion,” Solskjaer said after the 1-0 win at Turf Moor. “We’re seeing the best of Paul at the moment.”
Paul Pogba Manchester United Premier League GFX
There is no disputing that claim. Pogba has looked like his old self in recent weeks. The intricate turns, inch-perfect passes, driving runs and domination of the middle of the pitch have all returned, and served as a timely reminder of just how good he can be when he is fully fit and focused.
The best way he can now repay Solskjaer for his show of faith is by propelling United to their first title since Sir Alex Ferguson departed in 2013 because, in this form, Pogba really could be the difference between United staying the course or falling away down the home stretch.
However, even if he does inspire a surprise championship success, he remains destined to depart Old Trafford.
It is understood there have still been no talks over extending a contract which expires in 2022. Raiola has already made it clear he is working on a summer transfer for his client and that window will be the club’s penultimate opportunity to recoup some money on their £90 million man.
Pogba is staying silent on his future. His sole focus – at least, publicly – is on helping United negotiate what promises to be a treacherous path to Premier League glory, full of twists and turns.
“We know how difficult it will be and we just have to try to stay at the top,” Pogba told Sky. “I think we can win it if we keep our concentration but there’s a lot of teams that can win it – we are not there yet, we are still very far.”
Similarly, Solskjaer will not be side-tracked by premature talk of a title challenge, despite his side’s league position, and the 33-point swing from when United last visited Anfield almost exactly a year ago.
To really send a statement of intent they will have to become the first team since Crystal Palace in April 2017 to beat Liverpool in their own backyard. Certainly, Pogba could have an important role to play in that regard, but will he start? Surely, on current form, he has to?
Solskjaer has tended to switch between two defensive midfield partnerships this season but, for big games, he favours the Scott McTominay and Fred axis over the Nemanja Matic and Pogba pairing.
The Norwegian has preferred the defensive cover of McTominay and Fred 12 times this season, with United winning seven of those games, while Pogba and Matic have been picked together seven times, winning five of those fixtures.
Of course, there are options to get three of those four names on the team-sheet, alongside certain-starter Bruno Fernandes, but the midfield diamond that would accommodate them has produced mixed results this season.
While it worked well at home to RB Leipzig, they struggled with the same system against Arsenal, with the forwards failing to get into a game in which United’s attacks were far too narrow.
Pogba, for his part, showed against Burnley that he can be depended upon to carry out defensive duties. He was top of the statistics charts for clearances and duels at Turf Moor, while he is always capable of driving forward and creating chances once he has won the ball back.
Liverpool, though, will be far more threatening than Sean Dyche’s Burnley side, which may prompt Solskjaer to take the safe option by picking Fred and McTominay.
“They are two good pairs and in some games we have chosen Nemanja and Paul and I think they’ve played really well together. I think the two of them were the difference against Burnley with the physicality, the experience, the know-how and the quality that they have,” Solskjaer explained on Tuesday.
“I’m in a lucky position that I’ve got many good midfielders to choose from. Fitness, freshness – these things will be in my mind and, of course, this game has given me food for thought.”
The other option for Solskjaer is to play Pogba further up, on the left-hand side of United’s attack, in the role he occupied against Aston Villa. In such a set-up, the France international is able to drop back and pack the midfield when United aren’t in possession.
Still, Pogba has proven over the past month and a half that he can be a matchwinner wherever he plays. If he is given another chance to start on Sunday, the pressure will be on him to make the difference in United’s biggest game of the season so far.
That alone would be a decent parting gift from a player who still seems set to leave Old Trafford this summer.
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