Since his return to the club in 2016, there are few feathers that Paul Pogba has failed to ruffle at Manchester United.
Whether it be his Instagram antics driving former boss Jose Mourinho mad, or his lethargic performances leaving club legend Paul Scholes’ blood boiling; Pogba has been far from perfect over the last three years.
This summer was no different, with the Frenchman stating in a TV interview that “it could be a good time for a new challenge”, amid interest from Real Madrid.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, starting his first full season as United boss, was seemingly unfazed by Pogba’s inflammatory comments.
“I’ve not been upset by anything he’s said because we’ve had many conversations and I know exactly what Paul is thinking,” Solskjaer said.
“If we get him playing again like he did when I came in, he will win you over.”
Over the course of United’s pre season tour, Solskjaer’s praise for the former Juventus man became a reoccurring theme, and even seemed to blame Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, for the Real Madrid rumours.
“Paul’s never put himself out of the team, he’s always wanted to play, he’s always given his best and I can’t report anything but that,” Solskjaer said.
“Agents talk all the time and as I said we’ve not had any bids from any clubs and that’s all I can say about this matter.”
It was the kind of positivity Solskjaer has been praised for since his permanent appointment in March, but when it comes to the issue of Paul Pogba, does the Norwegian have any option but to turn a blind eye?
At the start of last season, it seemed Pogba’s United career was coming to an end, with his relationship with then-manager Mourinho reaching breaking point.
TV cameras captured United’s club record signing in a training ground row with Mourinho, with the ‘Special One’ apparently furious over Pogba’s social media activity during a league cup defeat to Derby.
Despite the countless reports of tensions between the pair during Mourinho’s two-year tenure, this was the first time there was any public evidence of a fractious relationship.
Mourinho did strip Pogba of the vice-captaincy prior to the training ground dispute, but even then, he refused to criticise the World Cup winner when he was questioned by the media.
“The only truth is that I made the decision for Paul not to be the second captain anymore,” Mourinho said. “But no fallout, no problems at all.”
This was not the first time Mourinho deflected the blame from Pogba during his time at United, and he was often full of praise for the midfielder.
After a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in April 2018, Mourinho rejected criticism of Pogba from Scholes, and instead commended his player.
“Top performance. Top performance. Obviously, the performance against City was special, coming with two goals,” Mourinho said.
“But this performance was a very similar level. So top performance. He can do it.”
Despite an increasingly fractious relationship behind closed doors, Mourinho’s praise continued at the start of the 2018-19 season.
“Pogba was a monster, we thought maximum 60 minutes but he managed (more than) 80,” he said following a 2-0 win over Leicester.
After the feud between the pair was made public the following month though, Mourinho’s patience seemed to have run out.
Pogba’s inclusions in the starting team became more and more sporadic, and by December, Mourinho admitted he didn’t even consider starting the United youth academy graduate following a loss to Liverpool
When pressed about whether Pogba was considered to start the game, Mourinho said: “No…I am happy with Matić, Lingard and Herrera.”
After this, the United hierarchy were left with a dilemma; Mourinho or Pogba?
With the Portuguese manager sacked just days after the Liverpool defeat, it was clear the board believed Pogba to be the more valuable asset.
It was a startling example of the power individual players possess in the modern game, and perhaps Solskjaer is fearful of the consequences that stem from a poor relationship with Pogba.
Solskjaer could’ve easily criticised Pogba for his comments about “a new challenge”, or at the very least refused to comment.
But as the former United striker commended Pogba, and continued rave about his player throughout the tour, it seemed Solskjaer was anxious to avoid the scenario that ultimately ended his predecessor’s reign.
Mourinho failed to build a relationship with Pogba, and that ultimately was the start of his downfall at United.
The ‘Special One’ was consistent with his public praise of Pogba, right up until December 2018 – the month he was sacked.
If Solskjaer wants to remain at United, his compliments for Pogba should continue throughout the season – or risk the wrath of the board.
When things go wrong for United this season, Pogba will be the first to ‘throw the toys out the pram’.
Even after he was ‘reinvented’ under Solskjaer at the end of last season, as soon as the team’s performances faded, Pogba’s poor attitude returned – he failed to track back as Cardiff scored their second goal at Old Trafford in a dismal defeat.
He clearly has his heart set on a move to Real Madrid, and the challenge for Solskjaer will be maintaining a relationship that satisfies the board – regardless of how he truly feels about Pogba.
The reality is, that if Zinedine Zidane had the funds available, Pogba would be a Real Madrid player.
For now, though, he is a weapon that Solskjaer is holding – but Pogba is the only one who can choose which way he points.
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