It might not quite have been the night Paul Pogba had planned for, but his cameo captaincy role against Granada on Thursday night was a stark reminder of the huge role he still has to play at Manchester United.
This season, just like the last two, United have played their best football when Pogba has been available. There was the initial spell when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived as caretaker manager, the post-pandemic run last summer and now this current spell which has seen United ooze class in away wins over Man City and Tottenham.
There are many reasons for United’s most recent upturn in fortunes, even given the unacceptable manner of FA Cup exit to Leicester, few are bigger than that of Pogba in his new role.
While Solskjaer remained vague on the reasons why Pogba carried the armband in the absence of Harry Maguire against Granada, he didn’t need to have the captaincy to be viewed as the clear leader of this United side.
He, along with Bruno Fernandes, is the only other indisputable world-class player in this United squad and it is so refreshing to be talking about his footballing ability once again.
When fit and firing there are few better in Europe than the Frenchman at dictating the tempo of a match from central midfield, but lately there have been few better than him on the left wing either.
It was in this new attacking role where he shone again on Thursday night, taking the game to Granada before sensationally teeing up Edinson Cavani with a beautifully cushioned backwards header. Few would even attempt it, never mind execute it so such a degree.
Had it not been for questionable officiating Pogba’s role would have stretched into the second-half, but he was protected against a risk of suspension by his half-time withdrawal.
On current form Pogba is rightfully regarded as one of the top midfielders in the Premier League, with Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandes perhaps his only contenders to the crown.
However, perhaps his long-term position is no longer that of a centre midfielder, but as an inverted left winger.
“I really like it, because I can be in the box, I can make those runs as well,” he explained of the recent position change.
“Physically, I can make a little difference so it suits me. I like it a lot. It reminds me a lot of my old position in Italy, so, yeah, if I can help the team up there, that would be good.”
Pogba is playing with unbridled joy once again and it is no surprise to see him reaping the rewards having been released of the defensive shackles previously bestowed upon him.
The issue is that right now using Pogba is such an advanced role is still not a luxury which can be afforded on a regular basis and in order to make it work a new recognised defensive midfielder will be required to anchor down such an attacking set-up.
It was no surprise that Nemanja Matic and Fred sat at the base of United’s midfield on Thursday night, the two sponges tasked with absorbing any rare attacking threat and playing simple passes to teammates.
United’s lack of a natural successor to Matic could well be their undoing next season if it is not addressed, with a less glamorous defensive midfielder required if Solskjaer is to strike the perfect balance.
Declan Rice is one player who United admire, although his hefty price-tag could be an issue, while James Garner is a future option, but perhaps still too raw and slight for such a responsibility at this moment in time.
United’s remarkable recent defensive record of having kept a clean sheet in 15 of their last 27 matches, could perhaps point towards defensive midfield being the bigger priority this summer – and Pogba might just agree.
The beauty of his ability is that he now has two midfield roles to play going forward, and if he commits his long-term future to the club perhaps United could reward him with greater shielding in midfield.
Recent performances have definitely ignited further debate to prioritise a new specialist midfield addition and it could be the key to keeping Pogba happy at the club.