It was not very long ago when there was speculation about the futures of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, a lingering sense that they would not fulfil their potential at Manchester United and would have to go elsewhere to do that. The conditions they needed to flourish were not to be found at Old Trafford, for one quite obvious reason.
Ed Woodward has to take plenty of criticism for his running of Manchester United but the fact that Pogba and Martial never became their Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah, sold too soon by Jose Mourinho, could be Woodward’s greatest triumph in the job.
Because everything Pogba and Martial have done since has shown that United were right to buy them, right to stick with them, and simply wrong to put Mourinho in charge of their development.
This easy 3-0 win over Fulham is a case in point. It was an unremarkable game, United strolling to victory against a team destined to go down. But it was also a reminder that Pogba is one of the best, most exciting, most original and most entertaining attacking midfielders in the world game.
No one would argue that Pogba has fulfilled his potential since United paid £89m for him in 2016 but he is now closer to doing that than he ever has been in the past. Watching Pogba now there is a real sense of excitement as to what he will do next. Not just within this match but over the next steps of his career. There is no limit on what he can do in the game, if he can just find the right environment.
The lesson of the last few weeks is that Pogba was in fact just as good as people always hoped he was. Here at Fulham he scored his seventh and eighth goals of the Solskjaer era, a run of scoring that has shown again that there is very little in the game that he cannot do. He has scored from distance, he has scored headers, but today was different again.
Pogba’s first goal came when he made a clever dart in behind onto Anthony Martial’s pass. Closing in on goal, without even looking up, he smacked the ball with his weaker foot past Rico at the near post. Solskjaer was impressed with the audacity and the execution, scoring when everyone else expected him to pass. “It was a great finish,” he smiled in his post-match press conference. “I have to say that I don’t think that I would have hit it like he did. Fantastic.”
Pogba’s second goal was a penalty but he made it too, bursting down the right on the counter attack. Calum Chambers was as powerless to stop him as an empty crisp packet trying to stop a gust of wind. But when Pogba is in this mood there are very few players who can live with him.
Just as impressive as Pogba over the course of the afternoon was Anthony Martial. With Marcus Rashford rested, Martial had to prove that he should stay in the team for Tuesday’s game with PSG but he could hardly have done more than this. It was his clever little pass that released Pogba for the opener. And Martial scored the brilliant second, racing forward from inside his own half, away from Denis Odoi, past Maxime Le Marchand, burying a finish. One of those Martial goals that looked like it could easily have been scored by Thierry Henry.
We are now 10 games into the Solskjaer era and it barely needs to be said again that Pogba, Martial and Rashford are performing on another level from how they did under Jose Mourinho. All of the inhibitions, anxiety and fear of failure that marked out their performances under Mourinho have melted away. Now they are free to push the outer edges of their talent, revelling in how dangerous, inventive and powerful they can all be at their best. It makes you wonder how much these players can achieve together, whether this season in the cups or even next season in the league.
Of course when Solskjaer was asked about his role in United’s transformation he tried to play it down. Unlike his predecessor, there is an authenticity to Solskjaer’s modesty. “It’s not me making a difference to the club,” he insisted. “It’s the whole team, it’s everyone together doing well, really well in the game we played. It’s a team effort, it’s the players who play, it’s the staff, and it’s how we do things at Carrington. It is never about one person when a team is winning games of football.”
Which is all very impressive and part of the Solskjaer charm but there is no avoiding the fact that it is his arrival that has brought the best out of United’s best players. Pogba, Martial and Rashford were betrayed by the appointment of Mourinho, a man who never wanted to see the potential in them, or to get the best out of them on the pitch. Only by replacing Mourinho with Solskjaer have United even started to get to tap into what these players can do. And every brilliant performance since has just been a further repudiation of Mourinho, his appointment, and his two and a half wasted years.