The irony is that just as Paul Pogba’s relationship with Jose Mourinho is tested to its limit, he suddenly looks like the £89million signing Manchester United thought they were getting from Juventus two years ago.
Make no mistake about it, Pogba was brilliant in Friday night’s 2-1 victory against Leicester City, his first match since a triumphant World Cup final, and that after only four days’ training following his summer break.
Able to put aside a turbulent week in which his agent Mino Raiola appeared to try to engineer a move to Barcelona, Pogba was clearly buoyed by being handed the United captain’s armband in Antonio Valencia’s absence.
From an early converted penalty to the standing ovation he received on his 84th-minute departure, he was the heart and soul of United’s performance that suggested a better outlook for the season than you would have thought after their unhappy tour of America.
Afterwards, Pogba broke his recent silence on a number of topics from being a World Cup winner to skippering one of the world’s great clubs, though Mourinho was notable for his absence when the 25-year-old praised his team-mates and fans.
Mourinho left his record signing out of United’s team at times last season and upset the player again by hinting that his success at the World Cup was due to being ‘completely isolated from the external world where they focus just on football’.
Pogba’s response was telling when asked on Friday if he was comfortable and happy at Mourinho’s United. ‘There are things that I cannot say otherwise I will get fined,’ he said.
In recent days, the midfielder has dominated the back pages, with a £200m move to Barcelona and a big pay rise mooted, but wearing the armband at Old Trafford clearly means a lot to the player, who first arrived at United as a kid before leaving for Juventus and then returning in 2016.
‘Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna [first-team coach] came to me and spoke about Manchester United, that people look up to me having come from the academy, stuff like that,’ said Pogba.
‘Obviously, if I can push the players and they trust me, it will be easier. It’s not just having the armband. I just have to be myself. You have to know one thing, a player that gets chosen and he’s happy, you always feel more comfortable than when he’s not happy. That’s all I say.’
The contrast between Pogba’s indifferent performances for United under Mourinho last season and his starring role in Didier Deschamps’ world champions in Russia was stark. Video footage showed Pogba making a stirring rallying cry in the dressing room for Les Bleus, something you would find hard to imagine being allowed at Old Trafford.
‘We were all a group in the team, on the same page,’ he said. ‘The manager was inside, the physio, the kit man. The players gave me the space to speak and express myself,’ he revealed.
‘Everybody went for the same objective, the big one was to win. When everybody next to you knows they want to fight for you, it’s going to be easier and makes the team go higher.
‘I’m a World Cup winner now but it’s the same Paul Pogba. It’s a different team, obviously. I still love football and I give my best for the team. When you are comfortable, when people trust with everyone, it’s going to be easier. If you’re not happy, then there’s no point doing it. You cannot give your best.’
Pogba looked like a captain on Friday. There were no highlights in his hair, no unnecessary stepovers. He gave praise to the leaders he himself has learned from.
‘Rio Ferdinand was captain at United when I was first here,’ he said. ‘Patrice Evra was captain. At Juventus, it was Giorgio Chiellini, Gianluigi Buffon. Michael Carrick was captain when I came back — and I learned from them all.
‘I always love the club. I came in the academy, I grew up. I played for the first team. For me, it was a dream come true and wearing the armband, it’s even more of an honour because of the past, the players who’ve worn it.
‘They help me, my team-mates, it makes me want to give them love and give them good performances on the pitch.’
Mourinho described Pogba as a ‘monster’ — in a favourable way — after his excellent last performance but the manager’s history suggests he is better at tough love than just love.
Pogba will be at Old Trafford until January and probably for the rest of the season. Beyond that, it might depend on who is in the manager’s seat.
Asked directly about his commitment to United given recent speculation, Pogba replied firmly: ‘Like I said, I always give my best for the fans, for the team-mates and for the people that trust me.’ It was the name missing from that list that resonates.