Within weeks of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer taking the Old Trafford reins on a temporary basis, United’s troubled midfield maestro, Paul Pogba, showed signs of displaying his full potential. Pogba cut a frustrated, constrained figure for much of the first half of the season, with his relationship with former boss José Mourinho becoming increasingly strained. Mourinho, a stickler for team shape and solidity, refused to give Pogba the license to roam as he craved. Some may argue that Pogba should have respected that, but instead, he opted to challenge Mourinho in the biggest display of “player power” in the Premier League this season.
Mourinho and United stuttered toward the end of 2018, with seemingly no hope of qualifying for the Europa League, let alone the Champions League. A mutual parting of the ways was unfortunate and by no means unexpected, but no one could have predicted the impact Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have on Pogba’s all-around game. Between Christmas and late February, no top-flight player has had more attempts on the goal or created more goals for their teammates than Pogba. He has played as a man possessed, and his performances warrant that £89 million price tag.
Solskjaer’s Unique Relationship with Pogba
Much of that turnaround has to be attributed to the return of Solskjaer, who seems to have a unique bond with the Frenchman. Since Pogba is something of a free-spirit, he has always been someone that’s liked making a statement. Even during his time at Juventus, he liked to let his hair do the talking rather than his football on occasions. However, finding the key and unlocking Pogba’s flair and enigmatic behaviour was one of Solskjaer’s first tasks when arriving in the Old Trafford hot seat, and boy, has it paid in dividends.
It all stems from the time when Solskjaer used to coach the United reserve team under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Norwegian would spend hours on the training field coaching Pogba one-on-one after sessions. Solskjaer, always a keen student of the game, used to take notes on Ferguson’s management style and would soak up every little nugget of advice or guidance that the Scotsman would offer like a sponge.
A Little Bit of Cantona in Pogba
In Pogba, Solskjaer saw someone with the potential to be whatever he wanted him to be: a complete and utter maverick of the football pitch. You could almost compare managing Pogba to managing Eric Cantona — another fiery Frenchman that could delight and despair in equal measure. In his mid-to-late teens, Pogba was already streets ahead of the United Under-18s, both physically and on the ball. And by Pogba’s second year with United, he spent plenty of time under the tutelage of Solskjaer and co-manager Warren Joyce. It was little surprise then that the trio would combine to help the Reds’ reserves to win their league.
Admittedly, Pogba would blow hot and cold like most young players, which was why Ferguson loathed to throw him into the first team. It was a decision that would see Pogba depart for Juve, but it was clear the Frenchman still had United in his blood. Solskjaer never forgot Pogba’s happy-go-lucky personality at Carrington during his first spell at Old Trafford. That’s why harnessing his enthusiasm for the game, and the club was one of Solskjaer’s first priorities when taking charge.
Solskjaer knew that to get the best out of Pogba, he needed to make him the fulcrum of his side: the driving force in a three-man midfield that allowed him to become the complete box-to-box midfielder. His newfound dynamism and selfless attitude have not gone unnoticed by Solskjaer, who insists that Pogba is one of the team’s leaders. And since Pogba is someone that needs to feel loved, having Solskjaer wax lyrical about him and say that no other midfielders come close in his mould around the world must give him an incredible amount of confidence. The proof is there, too, as in his first 10 games under Solskjaer, Pogba racked up eight goals and three assists. He also continues to drive United’s charge into the top four, restoring a winning mentality that could make Solskjaer’s men dark horses in 2019/20.