When Mesut Ozil finally ended his near eight-year association with Arsenal, it came with the worst kind of closure for their fans. Two factions in conflict during his final days, months and year at the club seeing an end to a relationship both hoped would yield more.
At his best, Ozil was a walking wonder. Someone who could turn weathered adults into awestruck juveniles with actions big or small. The kind of footballer you only get so many of in a lifetime and should count yourself lucky if they pull on the shirt you adore. And yet, the bitter stand-off between Arsenal and Ozil reached such a level that few could argue the time had come to part ways. Neither side has won, one just lost a little bit less than the other.
As a case study in modern football discourse, the German World Cup winner is an example of the extremes that can exist at one club around one man. Now Fenerbahce is his new home and Arsenal have a younger core to fawn over. When the dust settles, perhaps both will reflect this break served both parties well. But as the Premier League waved goodbye to one mercurial figure, another was working at uniting both sides of the debate around him.
He tackled more (four) and regained possession more (nine) than any other player on the pitch. Despite being the deepest of United’s midfielders, he played more passes in the opposition half than anyone else.
You could can it all-action if you like. But in its realest sense, it was all-Pogba: delivering on all promised onto him by his biggest cheerleaders. His cult and legend distilled into 94 minutes on a dank west London evening.
Acolytes aren’t drawn in by conscientiousness, but reverence to those that seemingly exist on a higher plane. And in the 65th minute, the sceptics felt the tug of what has drawn so many to the altar of Pogba. In the space of six seconds, he unleashed upon us a stunning moment made up of smaller, sleeker moments. A turducken
“We’ve always said Paul Pogba can do everything,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said afterwards. “He can play wide, in central midfield, create chances and score goals. He’s really come on. The key was getting him match fit. Today he was in midfield and he was so committed and got tackles in as well as his goal.”
The problem over Pogba’s five years at Old Trafford has been his brief, both the role assigned and how it was interpreted. As a midfielder who can “more or less do everything”, he has been guilty of trying to do too much. A trait spun both ways depending on your side of the fence: a talent taking responsibility or an ego too big to follow instructions.
But Solskjaer has provided the 27-year-old with some necessary parameters and personnel around him to narrow his focus without stifling the best bits.
Against Fulham he was allowed to roam, but did so with the knowledge that Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes were going to operate, essentially, as primary and secondary strikers. Pogba left them to the middle and did his searching out wide on the right, while the energetic Fred covered him in the centre.
When it comes to opposition higher in the table, such as Liverpool last Sunday, he is deployed on the left to a modicum of success. In the 0-0 draw at Anfield, he struggled to cover for Luke Shaw at left back, but was able to be a nuisance in the final third. The best chance of the match would fall to him, darting into the box and firing a powerful effort straight at Alisson. He was so disappointed with the miss that he apologised to his teammates in the dressing room.
This particular role is something of a back-handed compliment from his manager. That Pogba is wanted on the field but still not trusted centrally against in the biggest matches.
Nevertheless, it has been an impressive about-turn for a player thought to be on his way out before lockdown, and then again at the start of the year. Here he is, stringing together his most accomplished performances in a red shirt to emerge as a vital cog in a thrilling title-challenging side who lead the race at the halfway stage.
“I would like to say so,” Solskjaer answered when asked if this is the most focused Pogba has been under his watch. “He’s enjoying his football, he’s happy, he’s mentally very happy, he’s physically in very good shape.
“I’m very happy with his performance. I know what he can do and it was all about getting Paul fit: running fit, match fit.”
That may also be down to the team’s ambitions matching his own. That, finally, they are in sync. “I love winning,” Pogba told BT Sport. “It’s all about winning. I will always be happy when I win, and I will always be happy when I’m on the pitch.”
It is premature to say this is a corner turned even though it does feel like Pogba and Manchester United are taking that turn together, hand-in-hand. Only a month has passed since his agent Mina Raiola was touting his wares about, claiming discontent behind the scenes. Though Solskjaer has handled the situation well, the ill-feeling still bubbles away. The distrust of Pogba is partly distrust of Raiola. Perhaps that will never go away.
But Pogba is doing what he can to shed the polarity. His form an olive branch between those for and against him, something Ozil could not offer during his last nine months of inactivity in north London. The longer he spent off the pitch, the more toxic the conversation became. The man they were scrapping over unable to broker a truce.
Pogba is currently enjoying that luxury of stating his own case. Extending his purple patch will make convincing his detractors a little easier. Helping them to a Premier League title will wipe out all the bad-will in an instant.
But as with the Gunners and Ozil, even United fans uncertain of Pogba wish to see him thrive, even if this is to be his last season at the club. To show himself as the United icon they hoped he could be, exciting them with the brilliance plenty speak of but is only becoming apparent now. Deep down, they would love to be proved wrong. Even the biggest doubters were believers once.