It’s Paul Pogba’s world, and we’re all just living in it – even José Mourinho
Paul Pogba has had his critics – even inside of Manchester United – but in the opening game of the Premier League season he once again reminded us some things won’t change. So we might as well enjoy it.
Pogba’s summer was productive enough for him to be able to enter the new season very much on his own terms.
A key role in France’s run to World Cup glory, really coming into his own in the knockout stages, meant the 25-year-old could – for a couple of weeks at least – go into a Manchester United campaign without all the conversations centring around his inability to live up to the hype.
Instead of pointless conversations around his haircut or his dancing, his football would be able to take centre-stage.
So, with the eyes of the world on him in the opening minutes of Manchester United’s victory over Leicester City, he decided to take the penalty run-up to end all penalty run-ups.
It’s not the first time Pogba has done this – we saw him do the same for Les Bleus in the final of the Under-20 World Cup in 2013 – but there’s an element of control when he does it in this sort of game.
Control of his past by bringing elements of it through to the present day, control of his present through familiarity with how people see him, and control of his future by recognising the potential downsides of such a high-risk, low-reward play and going for it anyway. Because he can.
Pogba, like many of his Manchester United team-mates, knows when to take a back seat to help the rest of the team and when to buy into their own hype.
We see Jesse Lingard express himself through celebrations, waiting until he has made his concrete contribution, while Anthony Martial has continually based his game around putting opponents on edge, to the point where he’s at his best when they’re running scared off the back of a moment of embarrassment.
On this occasion, though, there’s another benefit to the run-up: it gives Pogba time to think. And you can let a lot of things cross your mind over the course of a 10-step run-up.
He’s likely made his decision on the run-up before the ball is even on the penalty spot. We can determine that much from the fact that the approach is a tried and trusted one, rather than a spur-of-the-moment thing.
Perhaps he remembers Kasper Schmeichel denying Luka Modrić at the World Cup, and anticipating the Dane committing himself early.
By step number three he’s wondering how many steps he’ll need to take to draw Schmeichel out past the penalty spot in a misguided attempt to narrow the angle.
If Pogba’s moving slowly enough, and the Dane is moving with enough forward momentum, he might even be able to replicate Ángel Di María’s chip against the same goalkeeper in 2014.
When Pogba is at his best, it feels as though he can play provider and finisher, and it would be no surprise to see him still riding the wave of doing just that in the World Cup final.
Pogba’s sprayed pass from deep might be the most photogenic pass ever played on such a stage; the equivalent of a Hollywood A-Lister coming to Broadway and trying to do it all – it’s not recommended, and they’re warned it won’t work, but ultimately they have the flair, charisma and, most importantly, talent to pull it off.
That goal was the prime example of someone deciding “this is my moment” and willing their glory into existence, and the penalty against Leicester brought with it that same sense that it’s Pogba’s world and the rest of us are all just living in it.
It’s at step number four that a little self-doubt begins to spread, but that quickly vanishes when Pogba remembers he’s not, in fact, Simone Zaza.
Five steps into the run-up, there’s no turning back. It’s do-or-die, but there’s still plenty of time to react, even if Schmeichel isn’t as pumped-up as first thought.
It’s going to be about placement rather than power, but if this is a game of chicken then Pogba has given himself the edge by holding it in his own back yard.
He’s practiced this before, and he knows the lay of the land: even if Schmeichel wises up – which he will, given the speed of the approach – there’s a second stage to the trickery which requires him to put his guesswork up against Pogba’s knowledge.
They’re both taking a multiple-choice quiz, but by steps six and seven Pogba’s seen the answers ahead of time and crossed out the wrong ones.
By step eight he’s looking ahead, not just to the celebration – a relatively muted one by his standards – but to the way he can react to the lead both on and off the pitch.
The swagger and the permanent smirk of the play is something some will argue we haven’t seen quite enough of at Manchester United, but at the same time the constant focus serves to exaggerate the low points and repeat the infrequency line when the highs arrive.
Most of us want to see the Pogba of old, the player who can spray crossfield passes with the air of a man who feels his own vision is contagious. On the occasions it has come off for United, it’s looked so simple as to almost not come across as impressive: to make others think the deliberate is coincidental.
It’s only when you dismiss the stunning as quotidian that you feel you can give Pogba more space, and when you feel you can give him more space he ends up doing things like this.
The question now is whether Pogba is playing with ease because he knows he holds all the cards.
“I still enjoy playing football but like I said, when you are comfortable or confident and are good in the head, it’s going to be easier,” Pogba said after the game.
The Frenchman has long known his value to the Manchester United squad, and in a way his game of chicken with Schmeichel was a way for him to mimic the one he has endured with José Mourinho over the last 12 months.
Steps nine and 10, and the composed top-corner finish, begin by demonstrating how aware Pogba is of his past, recognising the manner in which he took his development into his own hands after first leaving Old Trafford.
The finish, and the controlled display over the next 80-odd minutes, were Pogba reminding us how good and how important he still is.
As for the reaction to the display, the words spoken after helping his team to victory in that manner? It’s hard to say those aren’t the actions of a man whose future will be played out on his own terms.
By Tom Victor