It was most likely a pre-scheduled social media post.
Paul Pogba, in shadows, pulling a face that could – maybe tenuously – be read as a smirk. Or maybe it was a frown. “Caption this,” the post read, before hashtags and @s of club and sponsors, and then “#heretocreate”.
But timing is everything on social media and news had broken that José Mourinho had been sacked by Manchester United. Suddenly a fairly bland sponsor tweet – which was soon deleted – took on subtext the size of Manchester.
Things are rarely dull with Pogba. And it’s been the case ever since he arrived in Manchester as a 16-year-old from Le Harve.
That transfer resulted in a bitter dispute. The French club accused United of offering financial inducements to tempt Pogba into breaking his contract. Eventually, the Red Devils came to an agreement with Le Harve and were allowed to register the French starlet.
Yet three years after he arrived, Pogba departed for Juventus. His agent Mino Raiola had irked Sir Alex Ferguson during contract negotiations and the midfielder walked away for nothing.
In four seasons in Turin, Pogba established himself as one of Europe’s best young players. For United, he was the one who got away; a symbol of the troubled organisational structure at Old Trafford.
So in 2016, the Red Devils brought him back to Manchester for a then world-record fee of £89million. He would be a poster boy of the club’s fresh ambition and direction under José Mourinho. It wouldn’t last.
Under the Portuguese coach, Pogba became a lightning rod for the club’s failings. And if there was a perceived figurehead of an anti-Mourinho camp, it was the Frenchman.
But now that Mourinho has gone, Pogba will be the symbol of the next United era. And if he, and by extension the rest of the team, don’t succeed, they have no-one left to hide behind.
What Pogba is
As highlighted by Football Whispers earlier in the season, Pogba isn’t a dominant driving force in the centre of the pitch. He’s more of an attacking midfielder, albeit one who is put down as a No.8 in any starting XI graphic.
So what can Pogba become in the post-Mourinho era? His performances at the World Cup for France suggested he’s capable of being more than just a player let loose on the left side of a central midfield trio. And there are certainly elements within the United squad that could be put together to make a strong team.
Pogba has also been better than the negative narrative that has been built around him this season.
The value of the shots that he takes or creates is on a par with Marcus Rashford – 0.48 expected goals contribution per 90 minutes from open play – and just behind Romelu Lukaku, and Anthony Martial, and Alexis Sánchez.
And this is despite Pogba starting off from a deeper position on the pitch. He’s also been incredibly important in getting the ball into the final third, never mind what happens when United get there.
What Pogba, and United, could become
If Pogba’s scoring had matched his expected goals (xG) tally this season, then he’d have six rather than three to his name. And, together with his three assists, that would be enough for joint-11th in the league for goal contribution.
But Mourinho said that he dropped Pogba against Liverpool to make the team “more aggressive, more simple and more intense without the ball and that is what I think we need to play a fast team like Liverpool is.”
He might be right, in a way, and he reportedly had some support in his frustration with the World Cup winner. “The French midfielder’s situation was admittedly the sole issue where some had sympathy with Mourinho,” writes The Independent’s Miguel Delaney in his autopsy of Mourinho’s reign.
Pogba can, on occasion, be guilty of trying the spectacular, or dwelling on the ball in an attempt to play the killer pass. But the fact that he’s the most effective creator out of United’s regular starters this season shows that his creativity is missed when he’s not in the side.
Two bit-part players who beat Pogba in the expected goals assisted stakes are Sánchez and Juan Mata. Perhaps they too will see a return to regular football going forward.
However, the problem with United’s attacking riches is that it feels unfair leaving some of them out.
With the club’s defence a genuine weak point, perhaps Pogba as a ten in a 4-2-3-1 would be a better shape for the team and the player. The three attacking midfielders could take turns in dropping to receive possession, which would allow Pogba the opportunity to progress the ball up the pitch but without the defensive responsibility.
“I am not the coach. You will have to see with him. He made his choices,” Pogba said during the summer.
Now we’ll have to see what the choices of Manchester United’s caretaker manager are. No-one at the club can afford another failure.