In the 1960s, the saying went that, “when Pat Crerand plays well, Manchester United play well.” The adage looks like it needs updating with regard to Paul Pogba, who has not been on the losing side in a Premier League game since October 2016 at Chelsea.
United’s captain for the last three games — and the foreseeable future — was outstanding in the 2-0 win at Everton on New Year’s Day. With strikers Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic absent, Pogba played in a more advanced role and, in the second half especially, drove forward, played one-twos and created chances for a team that needed a win after four games without one.
Pogba set up Anthony Martial for United’s first goal and Jesse Lingard for the second and, in general, ran the game. If recent criticism of his form has stung and made him perform then nobody was complaining, though there will still be complaints about his scoring return; after goals in the first two league games of the season, he has netted just once since August.
The French midfielder is popular with United fans and, while he might not have his own song yet, shirts bearing his name were Christmas bestsellers, having surpassed Ibrahimovic.
Yet Pogba has not been without critics, which is natural when you cost £89 million and don’t play like one of the best in the world. Jose Mourinho defended his player after Paul Scholes made comments about him strolling through games. The quotes were seized upon, yet both men were largely right.
Scholes is a decent TV pundit and speaks like most United fans want: straightforwardly. He doesn’t cosy up to players he knows for fear of upsetting them; his job is to offer expert analysis and it’s not personal when he praises or criticises players at the club he served so well.
Maybe Scholes has been too strong in the past, though his words have also been tweaked to appear even more critical. The fact is that he’s been on TV over the past three or four years, during which time United’s form has been largely disappointing. His comments have merely reflected that.
Did his observations make it any easier for close friend Ryan Giggs when he was assistant to manager Louis van Gaal? No, but Scholes is not Giggs’ public relations’ advisor and a lot of the football played by Van Gaal’s side wasn’t good enough. Scholes feels that United didn’t buy well after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. How many fans would disagree with that?
Mourinho feels that Scholes is only critical. That’s not really true, but words of praise are seldom picked up with such relish. Moreover, the ex-United midfielder is not the only one to have criticized. Graeme Souness has long been critical of Pogba’s positioning. Coming from a man who played as a midfielder in a side that won three European Cups, the opinion is more than valid.
Pogba’s game still has room for improvement, something he’d admit. As well as shooting more accurately, for example, he has to be less emotional with referees. But he’s also got an incredible talent, which gets fans up from their seats. He’s the player around whom United are building and he’s also the main man in the dressing room.
Like Cristiano Ronaldo, who wanted to do too much individually and did not think enough about the team, Pogba needs a good manager to help him improve. He has that in Mourinho. Meanwhile, younger players look up to him and those who know him speak of a driven, clean-living, family man, who isn’t afraid to break with convention.
“Paul is an eccentric,” says Pogba’s friend and former teammate Patrice Evra. “Every day he wants to create something new. He’s a creator; not only in football but in his life and you see that on social media. He thinks for himself and acts for himself.”
Mourinho is correct to support his most important player and that stance is one reason why he is popular with his squad; they feel that he fights their corner by diverting the pressure onto himself. He was right when he said of the man he helped make the most expensive player on the planet: “Sometimes he plays well and sometimes he doesn’t play so well.”
The manager’s job is to get Pogba playing more like he did against Everton and less like he did against Southampton and Burnley. Optimism is high that this will happen: Everyone thinks Pogba will get better and so will United.
But Mourinho was wide of the mark when he said that “it’s not Paul’s fault that he made much more money than Paul Scholes.” Scholes is nothing like an embittered former professional, who bemoans the money made by current players.
He’s also financially wealthy, has several business interests and, even as a 43-year-old retired player, can command fees higher than the current weekly average Premier League wage to play exhibition games in Asia.
Not for Scholes a lavish New Year’s Party and Instagram-friendly images of a wonderful life; he was playing pool at home with his mates and family and the closest he comes to social media is when his son shows him his own account.
It’s better to have people like Scholes offering honest, informed opinions, than bland, positive platitudes. The truth is that United do need Pogba to play more frequently like he did at Everton and the same can be said for most of the players.
It’s such consistency that helps turn a team from also-rans into a winning machine and Pogba was right to say that his team needed to “wake up,” especially after drawing at home against an out-of-form Southampton side.
Pogba is only 24, handles pressure well and is moving in the right direction. With better players around him, that trend should continue. His club will be better with him playing well, with Mourinho as manager and with Scholes telling it like it is. Indeed, hopefully he will have reason to lavish praise before too long. As a United fan, that’s what he hopes to do.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.