Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba has set a scorching pace in the race for the 2021-22 Premier League Playmaker of the Season award (given to the player who registers the most assists) so far. Two games in and he has already managed five assists for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team, more than he delivered in three of his five full seasons at Old Trafford.
Although United failed to build on their 5-1 opening-day win at home to Leeds -- when Pogba created four of United's five goals -- by drawing 1-1 at Southampton on Sunday, it was the France international's build-up play that led to Mason Greenwood's equaliser at St Mary's and Pogba almost won the game late on with a left-footed shot which flew narrowly wide of the post.
Time will tell whether the Southampton result was a point gained or two dropped by United. It is still way too early to assess the prospects of any team this season based on 180 minutes of football against vastly contrasting strengths of opposition, so a draw at St Mary's might yet prove to be a positive result for Solskjaer and his players. But what isn't in doubt is the commitment and contribution of Pogba, despite the uncertainty over his United future that could quite easily have led to the 28-year-old coasting through until the expiry of his reported £300,000-a-week contract in June 2022.
The former Juventus star was one of the standout players at Euro 2020 earlier this summer, when those of a cynical perspective might have suggested he was performing to impress clubs such as Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, who have both held a long-term interest in signing him. But the alternative view is that Pogba has reached an age and maturity that ensures more consistency and responsibility in his game, and he has carried his international form onto the club stage with United during the early days of the new Premier League season.
Perhaps he is playing with the freedom that comes with knowing his destiny is firmly in his own hands now that he has fewer than 12 months to run on his United contract? Pogba is in the fortunate position where every potential scenario suits him and can be viewed as a win-win situation.
He can run down his contract and leave United as a free agent next summer; he can sign a lucrative new long-term deal at Old Trafford before the end of the season; he could even leave for a new club before the transfer deadline at 11 p.m. BST on Aug. 31. And there is also the possibility of assessing his options as a free agent next year and deciding to stay at United by signing whatever terms are offered.
However he chooses to roll the dice, Pogba ends up as a winner, so it's no wonder that he is playing with so much freedom alongside fellow midfield creator Bruno Fernandes at United. But while Pogba knows he doesn't really have any bad choices in front of him, sources have told ESPN that United are also relaxed about his contract situation. While they want Pogba to stay, and are willing to talk about a new deal whenever it suits the player, there is also an acceptance it is unlikely that he will commit to a new contract with his current one so close to its expiry date.
As reported by ESPN earlier this month, Pogba's departure during this transfer window would unlock significant funds for Solskjaer to further boost his squad following the arrivals so far of winger Jadon Sancho, defender Raphael Varane and goalkeeper Tom Heaton.
Pogba's form so far suggests United would miss him, but if his exit led to the signings of Atletico Madrid full-back Kieran Trippier and Rennes' 18-year-old midfield star Eduardo Camavinga, then greater depth could prove more valuable to Solskjaer than Pogba's unpredictable talents.
In many ways, Pogba and United are assessing each other closely. Pogba wants to win big honours, and quickly, so he needs to be convinced that Solskjaer can deliver them to Old Trafford, but the United manager, and many others at the club, have seen Pogba shine brightly in the past, only to underperform when his contribution was needed most.
Pogba's talent has never been in doubt at United, but his consistency has always come with a sizeable question mark and his stellar start to the season has now given him the challenge of proving it is not another false dawn. His best season in terms of assists since returning to United in 2016 came in 2017-18, when he created 10 Premier League goals for the team, so he is already halfway to matching that tally after just two games. His other seasons have resulted in four, nine, three and three assists respectively.
Tottenham's Harry Kane won Playmaker of the Year last season with 14 assists, with Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne winning it in 2019-20 with 20 (which tied the league's assist record with Arsenal's Thierry Henry). De Bruyne also topped the charts in 2017-18 with 16, before Chelsea's Eden Hazard came out on top with 15 a year later.
Pogba has never come close to those kind of numbers -- De Bruyne has notched 78 assists in 181 games for City compared to the United player's 34 in 139 -- but he has now given himself the platform to break new ground and make it pay, both for him on a personal level and for United.
All we need to know now is whether he can sustain this form and, five years after arriving at Old Trafford, finally become the consistent game-changer that United and everyone else was expecting.