Paul Pogba has understandably received a good deal of criticism for the first couple of months of his second Manchester United spell.
There have been a few great moments—he was superb against Southampton, Leicester City and Fenerbahce at home, for example—but plenty of games in which he has drifted out of relevance. This was particularly apparent during the home loss to Manchester City in the Premier League on Sept. 10.
With that in mind, and hopeful of some improvement here, we thought we would try something a little different and produce a moment-to-moment guide to his performance in Wednesday's EFL Cup Manchester derby.
From the off, it was clear he was playing on the left of a midfield three, with Michael Carrick holding in the centre and Ander Herrera on the right. Herrera's was a kind of box-to-box role—tasked with more defensive duties than Pogba but offered more licence to get forward than he had been when playing alongside the Frenchman in a midfield two.
City started strongly. After just over a minute of play, Jesus Navas whipped in a dangerous cross for Kelechi Iheanacho.
During that passage of City possession, it was clear Pogba had the freedom to stay higher up the pitch than his midfield colleagues—he maintained a presence ready for a potential counter-attack.
Moments later, it was clear why. He had made his way to the other end of the pitch, where he closed down the City defender around the left-hand corner flag. He won United possession, which nearly sparked an attack.
There were signs that his touch was not at its best here. After four-and-a-bit minutes, he attempted a lunged pass out to Marcus Rashford, but he got his angles wrong, something he probably would not do if he were playing at his highest level.
Equally, the sense that his on-pitch relationship with Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not yet where it needs to be was evident again—as has happened a few times in recent matches. He went for a ball that Ibrahimovic had set his eyes on, and Fernando then immediately knocked him off it.
There were sparks of his quality as well. On United's left, he used a chest pass to begin a one-two with Carrick, then swept a ball out to Juan Mata. Mata was not able to make much of it, but it was the kind of move that can make a real difference to an attacking unit.
His movement was interesting to watch. There was a moment early on in the first half when he slipped a simple through ball to Rashford and then hovered behind the edge of the area rather than bursting ahead of the ball—later, he would take the opposite tack and make a series of more progressive runs.
Indeed, after around 15 minutes, with Luke Shaw in possession, he made a run into the channel and implored his team-mate to pass him the ball. He did not receive it, and his frustration was visible.
The midfield unit was performing well for the most part from a defensive perspective. After around 20 minutes, Herrera robbed Leroy Sane. Pogba picked up the ball, executed a quick stepover, then fired the ball out to Rashford. The youngster found Mata, who was fouled for a direct free-kick. It was Pogba's best moment of the match up to that point—a little glimpse of why he is such a special player.
Off the ball throughout this period, his attacking brief was clear. With United in possession, he roamed to try to find suitable space.
When City had the ball, he tended to concentrate on occupying the space between City's deep-lying midfielders, Fernando and Aleix Garcia, and the ball. He was rarely involved in the defensive block and rarely called upon to press.
But his confidence did not look all it could have been. There was a telling moment after a tussle with Fernando. He lost the ball and gave away a foul. Sky Sports' cameras held their gaze on him while City fans chanted "what a waste of money."
There was momentarily a look of frustration and disappointment on his face, soon shaken off but evidence that he was unhappy with his efforts and perhaps frustrated that anyone could chant that at him and potentially be considered correct—not in the long term, of course, but in the early going.
That frustration did not linger. He was tangentially involved in a couple of attacks, leaving a shot opportunity to Ibrahimovic and then finding him with a through ball that resulted in the corner.
For the first of those two chances, he and the Swede were probably too close to each other—a further sign of their natural tendencies to take up similar spots on the pitch and more evidence their understanding is not up to speed yet.
Moments later, he took up a position on the right wing. He managed to get the ball past a slipping Nicolas Otamendi and fired in a decent cross, which Willy Caballero kept away from Ibrahimovic.
He did some defensive work a little before half-time, tackling Fernando, but Garcia got to the loose ball to ensure his side kept possession.
It was a half in which he did little wrong but brought much less influence to bear than would have been expected of him when he signed. It was just about the archetypal six-out-of-10 showing.
United's performance as a whole was much improved in the second half, and Pogba was a part of that, though even in the final reckoning, a seven-out-of-10 rating would probably be a little generous. Six and a half is probably about right for his 90-minute display.
Early in the second period, he began a passage of play on the right-hand side by knocking a simple pass to Mata. What was notable here was he immediately made his way into the box for a potential cross from the overlapping Antonio Valencia rather than hanging out on the edge of the area.
His touch was clearly still not quite right. He had slightly miscontrolled a pass at the start of the half, then did so again when Carrick found him in United's half. He reset himself and kept possession, but this touch would lead to an opportunity slipping away in the game's final moments.
United's all-around improvement was evident when Pogba got what was the best chance of the match up to that point.
Ibrahimovic's change of feet did for Otamendi, and the Swede found Pogba, who was clear of City's defence around eight yards from goal. Caballero did well to get a strong hand on his shot, which ended up rattling the post.
Soon afterward, Rashford found him on the edge of the area, where he forced himself into the space for a poor long-range shot. He definitely had better options but obviously possesses the ability to do serious damage from that range. It would be interesting to know how keen he would have been to shoot if he had not just spurned a big chance.
There is an evident, understandable desire to prove his value. It is sometimes hard to shake the feeling that the £89 million man is trying too hard.
He was not involved in the goal, but United's second-half play certainly warranted the breakthrough.
Shortly after United took the lead, Valencia had the ball on the right flank. Once again, Pogba made a run into the six-yard box—unlike that earlier overlap with Shaw, when he chose to hang back. Valencia did not find him, but the movement and positioning was excellent.
With a lead to protect and City in possession, United sat in a deep, compact unit for just about the first time in the game. Pogba formed part of the second line of defenders, next to Carrick and Herrera, right on the edge of his own box. A few minutes later, this happened again. United's shape was practically a 4-5-1, with nine of those men within around 25 yards of David De Gea's goal.
He showed the first real glimpse of the best of himself at around the 65-minute mark, dancing his way around three City defenders on the right flank. He eventually lost the ball but did enough to earn some appreciative applause from those in the crowd who had a decent view of what was some remarkable footwork.
With United 1-0 up, his capacity to keep possession in difficult circumstances came in handy. He used two headers to bring an overhit Valencia cross under control and worked his way out to the left, where Shaw provided assistance. It was a neat moment that helped keep the pressure off the Red Devils.
His confidence looked improved over the first half. He picked up the ball deep in United's half and beat a couple of players before spraying a pass out wide. However, while his confidence may have been up, his passing range was still not quite right and the ball sold Rashford a little short.
Then, when Ibrahimovic slipped a wonderful through ball out to the youngster, Pogba hit the afterburners in an attempt to keep up. The move came to nothing but not for want of effort. Again, he had made an obvious attempt to support the attack.
And the defence too. When City attacked down the left-hand side, substitute Raheem Sterling got past Shaw. It was Pogba who closed him down and ended the danger. Moments later, Sterling faced up against Pogba directly, and the Frenchman got the best of the encounter, standing strong as City's No. 7 tried to buy a foul.
The skills were on show again in the 85th minute, on the left-hand side down toward the corner flag. It was another example of his utility in this match situation. At 1-0 up, his ability to keep the ball under pressure was extremely valuable.
The 23-year-old earned himself a yellow card for a poorly timed challenge on Otamendi. In truth, the Argentina international appeared to make a meal of it given he went from prone to shouting in Pogba's face within moments. The challenge was nearly perfect, but the Frenchman could not complain about the booking given he clearly caught Otamendi's foot.
His touch let him down one final time in what would have been a great counter-attacking situation. He found himself one-on-one with Cabellero from a long way out before full time, but his contact with the ball was heavy, and the 'keeper made up the ground. It was a decent encapsulation of Pogba's all-around performance—nearly but not quite.
He definitely helped his side more than he hurt it, though. His last act of the match was to help Morgan Schneiderlin keep the ball in the corner with 30 seconds left in injury time.
Pogba will have better games in a United shirt, but he showed some of his worth here—not as a truly outstanding, world-beating midfielder but as a more than decent team performer with the potential to do magnificent things. Fans want more than that, but he is a young man, and there is a lot more to come.
The whole team's performance was much improved on Sunday's catastrophe against Chelsea, and Pogba was an important part of that.
Let us know whether you enjoyed this new format and whether there are any United players whose performances you would like to see analysed in this way in future games in the comments section below.