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red revival Solskjaer is doing something Mourinho never could - getting best out of Pogba


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Paul Pogba. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Pogba. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

Paul Pogba. Photo: Getty Images

Turf Moor, as it happens, was where things really started to go south between Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho.

When United won there in early September 2018, three months before Mourinho's sacking, Pogba insisted on leaving the ground in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce instead of joining his Manchester United team-mates on the bus.

Mourinho tried and failed to persuade the France midfielder to at least leave on the team bus before changing vehicles and subsequently admitted that he feared he would lose his job if he tried to force the issue.

"I went to the press conference and when I arrived at the team bus, parked beside it was a Rolls-Royce with his chauffeur," Mourinho explained six months later.

"After all, the car was new and His Excellency would like to leave the stadium in his Rolls-Royce. Now, how do we deal with this? You tell him never go in the Rolls? You can go when I'm happy? Or you solve this thing in another way to get me 'on vacation'."

It is no easier to guess what may materialise for United this season than it is to predict what will happen with Pogba's future down the line, but he was back at Turf Moor on Tuesday night blissfully free of any delusions of grandeur and, if we're sticking with the car/bus theme, determined only to help drive United to the top of the Premier League table.

Of all the things that should trigger a sharp upturn in Pogba's performance level, his agent's declaration that he wanted out of Old Trafford seemed an unlikely catalyst but, since Mino Raiola's interview with Tuttosport went public last month, United's record £89m buy has been playing with a focus we have sadly seen too little of in a red shirt before now.

Of course, there will be United fans out there, trying to get fully to grips with their team's resurgence, who may feel this title charge, like Pogba's form, still has a slightly fragile edge to it and could peter out as the season progresses.

Caution and scepticism are understandable, particularly where Pogba is concerned. We have seen these bounces from him before - such as when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Mourinho and Pogba revelled in his liberation - but they have seldom lasted.

Yet there has been a grit and concentration to his displays in recent weeks that have supplemented flashes of quality and, at the very least, even his fiercest critics must be struck by the sea-change in attitude from the player who conceded that hare-brained penalty on a generally torrid afternoon against Tottenham back in October.

He was a liability near his own 18-yard box that day, and not much use going forward either, and that was not all down to contracting coronavirus. There has been too much indifference for too long to pin it all on that.

What has been striking about the Pogba of late is his steadfast commitment both to the defensive and offensive aspects of his game.

Solskjaer must have lost count of the number of times he watched Pogba making important defensive headers against Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Burnley and it has been refreshing to see the Frenchman taking such better care of the ball in tight spots.

He did that against Villa when he worked his way beautifully past John McGinn to kick-start the attack that led to Anthony Martial's goal, and it was a similar story against Burnley when he won a header before striding forward to meet Marcus Rashford's cross with that crisp match-winning volley.

And so United go to the champions, Liverpool, on Sunday in first place and with Pogba revitalised, not sitting glumly and unused on the substitutes' bench as he was at Anfield in Mourinho's final game in charge of United just over two years ago.

A lot of credit here has to go to Solskjaer, too. Mourinho went to war with Pogba and look where that got him.

Solskjaer has resolved to do things differently. He has doubtless had to bite his tongue more times than he will care to remember but his man-management of a difficult, delicate situation this season has been excellent and it has enabled the upturn we are now seeing.

Pogba has never felt pushed out but he has not been indulged to the point of thinking he could continue to drift along either, his relegation to the bench during the autumn a reminder that Solskjaer wanted and expected more.

United are now getting that. How long it lasts is down to Pogba but he is playing in a team with real confidence and momentum, and what a difference that makes.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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