Paul Pogba wasn’t bought for a world-record fee to stand out against teams second from bottom in the table like Fulham, but there are no complaints when he does.
Pogba was supposed to be United’s main man in the biggest games, such as against Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford on Tuesday. The spotlight will be on United’s record signing to perform against the perennial French champions but he goes into the game in the best form of his Manchester United career.
Pogba scored twice in United’s 3-0 win at Craven Cottage; fellow Parisian Anthony Martial got the other with a superb solo effort. The goals were Pogba’s 12th and 13th of the season. Seven of those goals – plus five assists – have come during the 11-match reign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – 10 wins and a draw so far. United are now up to fourth in the table. Such a situation was utterly inconceivable when the Norwegian took charge on December 18, yet in only seven weeks he has won more league games than his predecessor Jose Mourinho had won in the previous four months.
"It feels great, that's what we wanted since Ole came," Pogba told Sky Sports. "We talked about this there's still a long way to go but we want to stay there."
"We were very far behind and now we get back to the top four but there's still a long way to go with big games coming up so it won't be easy."
Six of Pogba's goals have been penalties, but that shouldn't detract from the World Cup winner's influence under Solskjaer. So dominant was he against Fulham that one felt for Calum Chambers, the man charged with shackling him. It was a no contest and aside from a bright opening four minutes from the home side, United were seldom troubled.
Solskjaer made six changes including three of his four defenders, but he kept his tried and trusted midfield three of Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera. All have been exceptional under his management, but Pogba was the standout on a blustery winter’s afternoon at one of English football’s finest grounds.
“He is playing to his potential, we are trying to push the team forward to put players in positions where they can hurt teams,” Solskjaer said of man-of-the-match Pogba. “Paul can do that with his qualities.
“I asked myself should I play him or should I not because there is a big game coming up on Tuesday, but I think the intention shows when you play Paul and everyone knew that we needed to take this game seriously.”
Pogba is rated by most of his teammates as the best player at the club. He not only scores and assists, but he takes players on. He made so many runs against Fulham that the dejected opponents stopped trying to check him. He continually searched for space and there was plenty to be found against a ponderous, confidence-sapped Fulham whose own fans questioned whether their manager Claudio Ranieri knew what he was doing. The Italian has only been in the job for three months but Fulham are now seven points from safety in the Premier League.
Their mood contrasted totally with the 4,000 festive away fans who applauded Pogba’s fast feet and tricky moves. It was notable that when Solskjaer made United’s first substitution, bringing on Alexis Sanchez for Martial, the manager spoke with Pogba, offering instruction by the side of the pitch. Pogba is the captain in everything but name, the leader in the dressing room and on the pitch. Several times he told younger players like Diogo Dalot to get into a better position. Pogba was the conductor and his own position is improving, his passing less wasteful.
Pogba’s skills are appreciated by fans. But while they sang his name in the "Ole’s at the wheel" song from a raucous Putney End, he doesn’t have a song of his own. His stock had dipped significantly in the final few weeks of Mourinho’s reign. He wasn’t happy, he wanted to leave and it showed, but all that has changed under Solskjaer. It did his standing with the United faithful no harm when he handed his shirt to a young fan who had requested it with a cardboard sign as the players left the field.
Pogba showed at last year's World Cup he is a world-class performer. He needs to start doing that for United in their biggest games, starting with that Uefa Champions League tie on Tuesday against PSG at Old Trafford.