Just as the crescendo built to a cacophony, Paul Pogba has finally found some form. The world’s most expensive player was in danger of being labelled the worst signing in the history of football.
A late return to training didn’t help. Like many of the elite, he enjoyed a prolonged holiday and then further time off as he moved from Turin to Manchester. Had it been resolved earlier, he may have found his return to United smoother.
It wasn’t a familiar homecoming. Sir Alex Ferguson’s move to the boardroom led to turbulent times. Moyes and Van Gaal were disastrous appointments as United spent heavily and slipped out of the Champions League. Embarrassingly so in Moyes time.
Pogba was part of Mourinho’s masterplan to take United back to the top of the table. It hasn’t happened with United’s start to the season unconvincing. Wins in each of the opening three Premier League games were followed by 1 win 7; United dropped out of the top four and were flailing.
Seven games unbeaten steadied the ship but that included three consecutive draws, all of which were matches United should have won. An excellent 3 – 1 win in Swansea suggested a resurgence in fortunes but the failure to beat Arsenal was a sucker punch which hit United hard. They dominated the Gunners for ninety minutes but a late Olivier Giroud equaliser denied them the points they deserved.
Pogba was inconsistent. Capable of outstanding displays – he has won four Man of the Match awards already this season – he was equally anonymous in other matches. Mourinho used him as a deeper central midfielder, combining defensive duties with supporting the attack.
As part of a pair – usually with the impressive Ander Herrera – Pogba found his natural football instincts stifled by the defensive side of the game. The performances weren’t of an £85m man and questions, asked since the day the deal was made, were getting the wrong answers.
Mourinho was floundering as well. Increasingly irascible with the media, the Portuguese cut an isolated figure as he sought to lift the malaise engulfing his tenure at Old Trafford. Increasingly, it seemed that his reign might be as short as Moyes and Van Gaal; United were showing no genuine signs of improvement.
When the answer came, it was from a tried and trusted source. The pairing of Herrera and Pogba was augmented by the introduction of Michael Carrick. 35 years-old, the former Tottenham and West Ham midfielder remains an outstanding defensive midfielder.
Like James Milner at Liverpool, he knows his strengths and plays to them for the team. His arrival into the starting line-up to form a trio has given Pogba a new lease of life. The French international’s Man of the Match performances have all been since the inclusion of Carrick as United switched from a 4-2-3-1 formation to 4-3-3.
The series of draws – Arsenal, West Ham and Everton – can be ascribed to the players getting to know the formation and Mourinho’s ideas around it. Pogba and Herrera are certainly the main beneficiaries with both playing more advanced roles, knowing Carrick is minding the shop.
Prior to Christmas, United were on a run of four straight wins, games they might previously have drawn or lost. Before getting carried away with this, that run contained four games they expected to win. Trips to Zorya, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion ought to be won by even distinctly average United sides while Tottenham’s record at Old Trafford is dreadful.
They haven’t pulled up trees in terms of results but some of the collective performances have been light years ahead of the rest of the season.
Since the formation shift, Pogba’s match ratings from WhoScored.com have been improving, culminating in 9.42 out of 10 during the recent win at Selhurst Park. Maybe the yellow card he received stopped it being the perfect ten.
There’s definitely a sense that when the team plays well so does he. Maybe it’s the other way around or a symbiotic relationship. When he is subdued, it’s no coincidence that the team is.
On a personal level, his all-round game has found a rhythm. Against Palace his pass success rate reached a season high of 84% with 77 of 92 finding their intended target. He’s also become more willing to look for the long pass than earlier in the season.
The success of the midfield trio was highlighted in that game. Between them, they had 23.8% possession of the ball throughout the match with Pogba leading the way with 8.8%. It’s a staggering amount of the ball and underlines the dominating effect their manager wants them to exert on matches.
Crucially for Mourinho, the style and swagger associated with Manchester United is showing signs of return. The concerns aired before his appointment seemed to be coming true: a dour style of play, almost the antithesis of everything Ferguson’s sides are remembered for.
Now, United are looking to use the coming Christmas matches to build on the recent upsurge in their fortunes. With Pogba seemingly settled into the English game and Arsenal wobbling, the top four is not yet out of reach.