It is only a few days since Paul Pogba launched his Pogmoji app on social media, but you would not need one to gauge the Frenchman’s change in mood at Manchester United.
Pogba’s performances against Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City have told us all we need to know since United took the decision to replace Jose Mourinho with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The 25-year-old World Cup winner spent Mourinho’s final three Premier League games in exile on the bench, humiliated by his failure to earn a place in an underachieving United team.
Solskjaer’s arrival has brought about a transformation — one that always seemed possible once United’s £89million record signing was happy again.
With two assists at Cardiff and two goals against Huddersfield, Pogba is exerting the kind of influence in games that he showed only sporadically under Mourinho. Call it what you want — a clash of egos, a power struggle — the two never really got on.
Mourinho could not warm to Pogba’s brash, larger-than-life persona and his lack of discipline on the pitch. Pogba was turned off by his manager’s abrasive style and over-cautious football. When he spoke to the media after a dour draw with Wolves in September, he could have been reading from a script written by Solskjaer himself.
‘When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack,’ said Pogba. ‘That’s Old Trafford. We are here to attack. Teams are scared when they see Man United attacking and attacking.’
We have been hearing the same mantra from Solskjaer over the past week, so it is no surprise to see Pogba responding in such a positive way.
The caretaker manager is a very different animal from Mourinho — one far better suited to United, and Pogba in particular. Long before he could even have dreamed of managing his old club, Solskjaer said in August that he would build the team around Pogba — and he has been as good as his word.
The two spoke shortly after Solskjaer was appointed last week, having promised to give the players ‘a clean slate’. It was clear to whom he was referring.Since then, it has not been so much a case of playing Pogba differently as giving him the trust and licence to express himself.
Sometimes football can be as simple as an arm around the shoulder or a few words of encouragement and Pogba knew all about Solskjaer’s human touch from their time together with United’s reserves eight years ago.
He has been at the heart of everything since his old coach returned, displaying the full range of his talents. A 60-yard through-ball to Marcus Rashford against Huddersfield was the pass of the match.
‘He must be allowed to enjoy his football,’ Solskjaer told Norwegian TV afterwards.
‘He’s a world champion. He is one of the world’s best when he is in shape. I worked with him when he was young. He is still the same boy. He is happy, smiling and loves football.’
You have only to look at what Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have achieved at Manchester City and Liverpool to see the effects good man-management can have. Mourinho’s tendency to use the stick rather than the carrot is becoming increasingly outdated.
Towards the end of his career, Sir Alex Ferguson always said that getting the best from multi-millionaire footballers who no longer need the money had become one of the greatest challenges in management.
Ferguson also wanted his players to be settled down and Pogba is about to become a father.
His Bolivian partner Maria Salaues, who was pictured at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, is heavily pregnant and has moved into his luxury £3m house in the Cheshire village of Hale Barns.
Suddenly, talk of Pogba hoping to leave United next month for Barcelona or Juventus has gone very quiet since Mourinho’s exit.
‘The relationship had gone,’ former United defender Phil Neville told Match of the Day. ‘I think they would (have lost him).‘Pogba is probably the best midfielder in Europe on his day but he’s had a horrendous 18 months because of the fallout with the manager.
‘It looks like the shackles are off, playing with that anything-is-possible attitude, with arrogance.’
Some will have less sympathy and accuse Pogba of letting down Mourinho now that he is showing what he can really do.
Others argue that stellar displays against Cardiff and Huddersfield do not answer enough questions when far tougher challenges lie ahead. Pogba needs to produce against the bigger teams.
Nemanja Matic, for one, predicts there is more to come. ‘When he plays at his best he can make the difference in every game,’ he said.
‘I think that he can do even more. It doesn’t matter if it’s with me, Ander Herrera, Fred in the middle, or Marouane Fellaini, I know he can play well.’