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Can Ole Gunnar Solskjær Find a Solution to the Paul Pogba Puzzle?

Can Ole Gunnar Solskjær Find a Solution to the Paul Pogba Puzzle?

Friday, 28 December, 2018 - 09:00
Paul Pogba (left) sparkled at the World Cup but was sidelined during the latter stages of José Mourinho’s tenure. Photograph: Magi Haroun/Rex/Shutterstock
London - Amy Lawrence
For any manager parachuted in to sort out someone else’s problems the nature of the job is to make the best meal out of the ingredients left in the cupboard. Paul Pogba, given his quality, should be one of the first things any new manager reaches for. The relationship between Manchester United’s marquee midfielder and Ole Gunnar Solskjær may not turn out to be a long one but it can certainly be important.

Wherever you stand on the Pogba-José Mourinho enmity – whether sympathising more with one, the other or neither during a deep frost that did neither of them any favours – there is no disputing that Pogba can be a major force for Manchester United. While Mourinho seemed to get a kick out of undermining him – a weird strategy to motivate an important player – outside this spiky chapter Pogba has been able to express his talent readily for Antonio Conte and Max Allegri at Juventus and for Didier Deschamps with France. Clearly getting more from him than has been on show this season is possible.

When Deschamps was in London recently to pick up an award he mounted a loyal defence of Pogba. “There are a few things people ought to know,” said the coach of the world champions. “First of all there is an image of Paul that doesn’t correspond to who he is. Maybe it is because he is a bit eccentric, a bit demonstrative. He has been with me since 2013 – that is five years now – and the way he functions is not about him for himself, it is him as part of the group. That is really important. His image in the media makes everything quite complicated.”

Pogba seems to crystallise so much about the modern footballer: a huge social media presence, a powerful athlete with his own team and marketing structure, and a personal fanbase that happily follows him from club to club. That is never going to be everybody’s cup of tea, least of all ex-players who did things differently – see Gary Neville this week, who told him to “do one” after an ill-timed message in the aftermath of Mourinho’s sacking.

Darren Fletcher, speaking to the BBC, suggested Pogba needed “a kick up the backside” and urged the midfielder not to interpret recent events as some kind of personal victory. “If Pogba starts thinking that he is bigger than Mourinho, there’s your next problem,” he suggested. “Somebody needs to get hold of him and say: ‘Listen, this hasn’t been a battle between Mourinho and Paul Pogba and you’ve won. You have got to go and prove yourself now.’ A new manager has to come in and demand more of him to lead this team forward.”

Solskjær, who coached Pogba as a young player during his three-year spell as reserve team manager, has been given the task of bringing the feelgood factor back to Old Trafford and the hierarchy will want to see greater evidence of a return on their vast investment in Pogba as part of that. Solskjær might appear to be in a weak position given his temporary status but, if things do not pick up, perhaps it will be perceived as Pogba’s problem rather than Solskjær’s.

The dispute with Mourinho, which left him oddly peripheral for a man of his sporting prowess, will leave after-effects and the best way for Pogba to obliterate them is on the pitch. That gives him something to chew on at the end of a year when he was an outstanding, influential leader during the World Cup but a misfiring cog for Manchester United. The contrast both technically and emotionally has been stark.

It is not uncommon for a player who has been part of a World Cup-winning squad to endure a hangover in the subsequent months. Antoine Griezmann is notably down on his normal scoring ratio in La Liga this season – a couple of goals last weekend bought his total to five in the first four months of the campaign. Hugo Lloris has had his difficulties on and off the pitch and was supported by his club manager during these challenges.

The possibility that Pogba might be undergoing a natural dip has not been part of the narrative but, when the conversation includes Mourinho and an arctic antipathy with a star player, any other theories tend to be sidelined. It was strange to see Pogba return from Russia and find himself under scrutiny, with Mourinho making a show of declaring him unsuitable to captain United again.

Then came the moment the hostility was laid bare in a filmed exchange one morning at Carrington one morning in September when the player jogged over to shake hands with the staff and looked disgusted by his manager’s choice of greeting. It has been obvious they could not reasonably coexist at the same club in the long term.

During the World Cup Pogba felt compelled to describe himself as “the most criticised player in the world” but he went on to explain how he tries to brush off such stuff as risible. “I treat the criticism like I did when I was playing on the block as a kid,” he said. “I never listen to it. I’m having fun and that’s the only answer I can give to all those people who criticise me or who think I am this or that. Everybody has opinions.”

They certainly do. For the moment Solskjær’s opinion of Pogba should be the one that matters.


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