With all the attention on Wayne Rooney this weekend, it was almost forgotten that the most expensive player in the world had been back in England for a couple of months and was yet to turn in a really convincing performance.
Of course nobody was panicking, but when Paul Pogba is at his best, he plays with a swagger, a visible confidence that he’s worth every penny of that eye-watering £89.3 million transfer fee. That had only been seen in flashes so far, but it was much more present in Manchester United’s 4-1 win over Leicester on Saturday.
Most seemed to agree that we might see more from Pogba in Rooney’s absence, freeing him to break forward and perhaps excel in his favoured No.10 role. But while the first part of that was true, it wasn’t because of the second.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jose Mourinho’s team selection was not that Rooney was dropped but that Pogba was still deployed in a deep midfield role, next to Ander Herrera. Conventional wisdom states that Pogba’s best position is part of a three-man midfield or as a No.10, free to power forward and unburdened with much defensive responsibility.
Indeed, France coach Didier Deschamps received plenty of criticism during the European Championships for not picking him in that position enough, for not maximising the talent of one of the world’s best midfielders.
Yet on Saturday, he showed that he’s not such a delicate flower, that he can perform — excel, even — in a slightly different role. What was perhaps so impressive and perhaps surprising about Pogba’s performance was how understated it was. The primary criticism about the Frenchman in the past was that he could too easily go missing in games but pop up with a moment of eye-catching brilliance: a double-take inducing flick here, a 30-yarder into the top corner there.
But against Leicester, he was more substantial than that, rarely trying to force the issue and merely controlling the game with careful brilliance. His one concession to the spectacular was a dipping, swerving shot in the first half that was just kept out by Leicester’s overwhelmed replacement keeper Ron-Robert Zieler, in for the injured Kasper Schmeichel. This was a showing of calm authority: perhaps not the player many United fans thought they were getting but still a very welcome one.
And then of course there was his tangible contributions: his key involvement in the brilliant move for Mata’s goal, then his own strike, brushing aside Christian Fuchs like a slightly irksome crumb on the lapel of his jacket, then delicately guiding a header home. His prowess in the air is just another indication of how special he is. Plenty of people do all the things that Pogba does, but no single player does them all like Pogba does.
He’s the modern footballer you’d design in a lab — skilful, strong and smart, and his only weakness is really that he doesn’t display all of his outrageous gifts often enough. There was still the odd moment (he gave the ball away dangerously in the second half, a concession that could have been punished further), but this was a mature showing, one which Mourinho must have more of.
Not that Mourinho was excessively impressed.
“I thought he was OK against Southampton and Hull,” Mourinho shrugged when asked if he thought that was Pogba’s best performance for United.
But in seeking to play down Pogba’s excellence, he perhaps revealed something about the way this season at Old Trafford could go.
“When the team plays well, he plays well,” Mourinho said. “When the team plays better, he plays better. We want more from him and from the team. The last thing the team achieves is consistency — so he has to be more consistent, like the team.”
Perhaps it is the other way around. Pogba playing well means United playing well, and more consistency from him means more consistency from them. It’s probably not a coincidence that Pogba’s best performance of the season was also United’s.
How much of this was down to Rooney’s absence? Perhaps plenty, as Pogba was definitely afforded more space to do his work, rather than having to trip over an often ponderous Rooney as he dropped deeper and deeper looking for the ball.
Juan Mata — also excellent, in Rooney’s position — used the ball much more rapidly, providing a much more fluid heart to United’s side. Pogba did that too, and with Ander Herrera alongside him, the three complemented each other. Mata’s performance was good and bad news for Rooney. The England international might not be in the team quite as much, but the Spaniard is at least showing there is a way back from the cold under Mourinho.
Just as nobody should have panicked about Pogba’s slightly slow start to the campaign, nobody should get too excited about this excellent performance. If United are to achieve anything of note this season, he must play like this most weeks and preferably more often than that.
“I don’t look at the newspapers,” said Pogba after the game, when asked about criticism of his time back in England so far.
“But I always say one thing: ‘It’s at the end.’ So at the end, you will see.”
If he keeps this up, at the end we’ll see what a player unlike any other in the world is really capable of.