Man United’s purring Pogba rises the highest and shines the brightest
French midfielder was at his swaggering best as he inspired Solskjaer’s side past Chelsea
Paul Pogba was named man of the match in Manchester United’s win over Chelsea. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
On nights like this it makes no sense at all to think a manager would not search high and low for the key to Paul Pogba and then turn it to the fullest degree. The slow-burning intensity of this FA Cup tie was wrapped up in the chasing and harrying, the bundling challenges and hopeful pot-shots, until Pogba suddenly elevated himself, the game, and Manchester United’s vibrant Cup run.
In a 14-minute spell at the end of the first half they carved out an unassailable lead thanks to the blend of vision, technical precision and physical force that is Pogba at his swaggering best. First, the cross: Ander Herrera set off on a sudden sprint up the right, anticipating that United might be about to unleash an invaluable weapon. Pogba with the ball at his feet on his current form always presents the possibility of a stirring touch.
The Frenchman hoiked his cross beautifully into the space Herrera was fast approaching. With Marcos Alonso, a player whose form has mirrored the rise and now stomach-knotting fall of Chelsea’s experience under Maurizio Sarri, showing no sense of the runner’s whereabouts, Herrera nodded in unchallenged.
Then, the smell of goal: Pogba doubled United’s lead with a move he started and finished, pinging the ball out to Marcus Rashford and bounding forward to meet the first-time cross with a header. Job done. Next round. Merci et bon nuit.
Sometimes in the life of a player there comes a time when every touch, every move, every thought feels so right. So blissfully easy. It was barely imaginable that Pogba could experience that this season during the testiest late-Mourinho days, when he was dropped, stripped of the vice-captaincy and publicly demeaned by his manager.
What a stroke of fortune for Ole Gunnar Solskjær that a player such as Pogba needed the kind of ready encouragement he could not be happier to give. Nine goals and six assists since the Norwegian took over is a phenomenal return. Managers who have trusted this charismatic talent, who have let him be himself, usually find themselves richly rewarded.
Pogba has benefited from the structural and motivational resurgence around him in United’s midfield. If he sprinkles the stardust, Herrera and a rejuvenated Nemanja Matic are vital in sweeping up around him.
The combination has established a new balance at the heart of the team that has become so effective in protecting the defence and launching attacks. Herrera’s importance was underlined not only by his goal but also by a critical block when Eden Hazard shaped to shoot midway through the second half. Matic and Herrera have arguably never played so well and that has undeniably given Pogba that extra freedom.
United fared well enough with the enforced change to their forward line in the absence of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Rashford’s hard running was a constant enough threat that Chelsea’s defence did not have much chance to take a breath. Romelu Lukaku barged around and held the ball up.
Pogba concentrated on the less glamorous parts of the job in a second half when Chelsea tried to turn up the temperature. He organised, held some physical ground, influencing in a less spectacular but no less important way. His dominant personality seems to be so reassuring for United – something to cherish. To be suspicious of it, as his former manager was, seems more and more like a self-inflicted madness.
Meanwhile, during a pivotal week for Chelsea, with a Europa League job to finish up against Malmö before the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, Stamford Bridge is gripped by negativity. The fans in the Matthew Harding Stand vented their frustration when Ross Barkley was introduced despite their calls for Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Chants of “fuck Sarri-ball” added no sugar-coating to their emotions. They booed the arrival of Davide Zappacosta as a meaningless throw of the dice. Six days before they play a cup final, loudly suggesting that their own manager was getting sacked in the morning felt like a hell of a vote of confidence.
For these two managers a few metres apart in their dugouts, in their own ways both fighting to keep these elite jobs, to be given time to make a lasting imprint, appeared to be at opposite ends of the trust spectrum. Solskjær was praised to the rafters by United fans who did not want to go home. Sarri was cursed by streams of early leavers who could not wait to get out.
And how telling that in this derby of sides formerly managed by Mourinho, the player he made such a public enemy of should settle it all, rising the highest, shining the brightest.