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Jose Mourinho got fired and lo, Paul Pogba is an absolute delight again!

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Who would have thought that an improved work environment could make Manchester United star better?

Newcastle United v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

The clouds have cleared from above Old Trafford, and it’s fair to say that Paul Pogba is enjoying the sunshine. In the four games since Jose Mourinho departed, Pogba has scored four, and created a healthy spattering of chances for his colleagues, three of which grew up to be assists.

More to the point, he’s looked right. The leggy breaks through midfield are back, as are the twinkling toes and the booming crossfield passes. Against Newcastle on Wednesday night he also found the time to conduct a running battle with Jonjo Shelvey, instruct Andre Marriner on his refereeing responsibilities, and create the second, game-killing goal with a tackle. Truly, the complete midfielder. He even let somebody else take a penalty.

How do we understand this transformation, this lifting of last month’s misery? Perhaps there is a virtuous circularity here: a happy Pogba is a busy Pogba is a good Pogba is a happy Pogba, on and round and round. Certainly, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s instructions to his no. 6, who is starting higher up the pitch, and the team as whole — to do more, do it quicker, and do it farther forward — seem to play to the Frenchman’s strengths.

So does, perhaps, the tenor of the project. Turning frowns upside down might sound a little trite, especially for the extremely serious business of Premier League football, but it has an important consequence for Pogba. He is a player that will always spend some of his time losing the ball in midfield, no matter his manager. That’s the point of him: to try things, difficult and imaginative things, many of which won’t work at all. One manager’s bug is another’s feature.

The less sympathetic framing of all this is, of course, a simpler equation: effort equals production. Pogba wasn’t trying, and now he is; the tools that were down are now up again. Not trying is one of English football’s greatest sins. It is a breach of professionalism, of trust. Of fealty, even.

Sure, your manager may be a cartoon cloud that won’t stop raining, he may move you around and muck you about, he may berate you more than is warranted for your mistakes, he may spend most of his time dragging everybody around him into some weird, self-serving, highly destructive macho psychodrama — he may, in short, have gone Full Late Mourinho — but you don’t play for your manager.

Accepted wisdom says you play for the club and the crest. You play for your colleagues. You play for the fans. You play, ultimately, for the privilege of playing for Manchester United.

And to be fair, that is a lovely idea. Maybe it’s even true most of the time. But it does run into the problem that whatever the player’s motivations are, and however romantic they might be, the manager is still there, picking the team and calling the shots. You can ignore the cartoon rain cloud all you want, but it’s still going to rain on your head.

Take Nemanja Matić, by all accounts a good and faithful lieutenant right until the very last. Look at him now: roaming around, passing through the lines, playing better. Of course, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t dab, and he isn’t black, so the wider world tends to assume he’s always trying his hardest. And yet he’s gotten better as well ...

Is it possible for a player to perform at their best in a toxic environment? Is it even possible for them to try their hardest? Would trying their hardest even work? The granular experience of being a professional footballer is one that most of us will never know, but the grand psychic freedom that comes from escaping a malignant professional atmosphere — the unstoppable smiling! the lightness! they’ve finally gone! — is something universal. Commitment is always necessary for success; it is, perhaps, not always sufficient.

(We could, of course, also ask if a manager could survive an environment in which their players have soured. Chances are that the toxicity within Mourinho’s dressing room wasn’t all of Mourinho’s making, even if he ultimately failed to manage it. There were plenty of other egos bubbling away in there, and we are still very much in the first flush of the rebound.)

In any case, even if Pogba had chucked it in, and so violated the terms of fealty that are supposed to bind a footballer to their cause, this appears to have been a contingent violation, now rescinded. When United looked like a pointless, useless place to be, he didn’t want to be there. Now it isn’t, and he does.

At worst, he’s treated his football club the way football clubs treat their players, ready to cut ties when the relationship is no longer useful. A mutual lack of sentiment might lack romance, and possibly even respect, but it makes just as much sense for players as it does clubs.

And if Pogba truly does view his relationship with United as nothing more than transactional, then the fact still remains that there is plenty for both sides to get from this. He is, after all, brilliant. More importantly he is brilliant in a way that nobody else at United can replicate but everybody else at United can benefit from.

We can probably assume that Solskjaer, per terms of his caretaker-audition, will ask his team to maintain the same approach and attitude, and will continue to place Pogba at the heart of it. Whether United’s results survive contact with stronger teams remains to be seen, but they already look far more capable of defeating the Premier League’s weaker sides. And that is the first job of any Champions League aspirant.

This all works pretty nicely for neutrals, too. At the very least, this means a few months of watching one of the world’s more singular talents operate with a license to play. A good Pogba is a fun Pogba, and a fun Pogba is a delight.