After months on the sidelines, most footballers take weeks to get up to speed. But Paul Pogba is not ‘most footballers’.
The Frenchman is a unique player and individual, and he has returned like a man on a mission, determined to both dominate opponents and enjoy his football.
It is good news for Manchester United, and there is a growing chance Pogba could even be convinced to sign a contract extension.
Pogba deserves credit for the way he has re-adapted, having last started a game in September, he has returned to deliver a high level of performance in these opening games of the restarted season.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also deserves a lot of credit too. He consistently backed Pogba, amid his injuries earlier in the season.
Man management paying off
This all seemed to come to a head around the new year. Pogba had just returned for United as a substitute in matches against Watford and Newcastle, before being absent from squads against Burnley and Arsenal, when the club had hoped he would be ready to start.
Pogba had suffered an injury setback, which took until March for him to recover from. Just as he was on the verge of a return, the season went into lockdown.
At the start of the year Pogba’s setback prompted all kinds of conflicting stories about the handling of his injury, and whether the player and club were on the same page.
Solskjaer was quizzed about it relentlessly in press conferences, with the media just begging for the United manager to say something which would deride the player.
The United boss would not be goaded into criticism, and instead praised Pogba and talked up his desire to play for the club. At the time it almost didn’t make sense, but Solskjaer knew what he was doing.
He was quoted by FourFourTwo: “Paul has had a terrible season with injuries and he is desperate to play football. So if there is one thing I know about Paul it’s that he loves playing football and training, and it’s been playing on his mind.
“Anyone who is injured, you cannot wait to get back on the pitch, and you feel so free and he has been playing with pain so I am sure when he is pain and injury free he will enjoy his football.
“I see a boy who is fed up with being injured and who is desperate to play football. Paul has always been a top professional so I don’t have any doubts that when he comes back he is going to enjoy himself.”
Solskjaer’s comments look spot on now, almost visionary. Almost as if he knew what he was doing all along.
He knew there was no sense in burning bridges with the midfielder, by questioning his desire to play. Especially if he saw close hand how desperate and frustrated the midfielder was.
Other managers would not have handled this in the same way. You can only imagine how Jose Mourinho would have reacted to a six month Pogba lay-off with several false dawns on a potential return, which was first tipped for late November/early December.
Even cast back to when Pogba was ‘shockingly’ pictured dancing at a wedding. Solskjaer stood up for him and said the midfielder needed to be cut some slack.
He was quoted by France24: “For me, he is one of the best players in the world. I have always said it and you have seen what he can do on the pitch.
“But he needs to be fit. Everyone is allowed to be injured. I was out for 18 months (as a player). I was at weddings and I was ill and doing other things. I wasn’t the best dancer – not as good as Paul definitely.”
Again, the media were absolutely begging Solskjaer to condemn Pogba here. He refused, backing him resolutely.
Now Pogba is out there having fun at the training ground and on the pitch. This is the player United spent £89 million to sign.
If Solskjaer had called Pogba out, this would still be an uncomfortable backdrop and storyline to the midfielder’s return. Now, instead, there is just a sea of calm surrounding United.
Man management has been a strong point of Solskjaer’s. He spoke up for David de Gea last month when he was under fire, and the Spaniard has reacted well.
Solskjaer is now reaping the benefits of backing Pogba so staunchly, and refusing to feed the negative headlines around the Frenchman, which had tried to insinuate he did not want to play for the club.
Pogba has no doubt been enthused by the prospect of playing with January Bruno Fernandes, and he is showing that he believes in this team’s potential.
Solskjaer deserves credit for keeping him motivated, continuing to believe in him, and defending him when others were ready to pile on. It is partly thanks to this approach, that Pogba’s United are on course to finish strong.
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