Could the Return of Peerless Paul Pogba Reignite the Premier League Title Race?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistNovember 20, 2017

"Don't worry, Jose. I've got this."
"Don't worry, Jose. I've got this."OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

It seems a little superfluous to point out Manchester United missed their £89.3 million midfielder. A little like idly speculating one might miss a misplaced leg.

Yet even in a world where it is hard to think of any news that would be small enough not to be news at all, Paul Pogba's 10-week absence, encompassing 13 matches, seems a little unreported. Or more pertinently, the consequences of his absence have.

There have been minute-by-minute updates on various visits to barber shops but less in the way of pointing out the obvious. The reason United have not been playing as well without him is because they have been playing without him.

Manchester United without Pogba is like Mozart without his piano, Picasso without his sketchbook or even, whisper it quietly, Manchester City without Kevin De Bruyne.

As indulgent a proclamation as one of the Frenchman's more ambitious passes perhaps, but his performance in Saturday's 4-1 defeat of Newcastle United was not just good news for Manchester United supporters. Anyone with a desire for the Premier League title race to be something more than a meander to the line for Manchester City post-Christmas should hope Pogba's injury woes are now behind him. 

The focus in Pogba's absence has been on United boss Jose Mourinho. Manchester United's reverse metamorphosis from beguiling butterfly in those first few weeks to cantankerous caterpillar thereafter has been accredited to the Portuguese reverting to type.

For weeks he's worn the look of a man who might be secretly sleeping in his car after falling out with his wife. All the while repeatedly crying about the fact he's not crying about all the injuries he's had to contend with. That's life; he's grumbled, sounding like a man just a little bit out of love with it.

No one loves life more than Pogba. He manages more smiles over 90 minutes than most do at the birth of a child. After football, he should try his hand at poker. His face would beam Royal Flush despite his hand being of the busted variety. 

For a 24-year-old to have a personality almost bigger than one of the world's great sporting institutions is testimony to a force of nature. It's one that is never bullying or hectoring, as is the perpetual accusation levelled at someone like Mourinho, but entirely inclusive via an infectious vitality for life. 

It's easy to be churlish about Pogba. He's different, which for a significant portion of ex-pros turned pundits means he should be treated with the suspicion of a sausage that has been cooking on a barbecue for less than a day. Back in September, the unrivalled king of the non sequitur Garth Crooks took grave exception to Pogba sporting a red streak through his hair.

"I only mention it because he clearly wants to bring it to our attention," he said on BBC Sport, as though one of the world's most recognisable people spends his time wondering just how he'll get our attention. 

"There is so much for the midfielder to do at United and he still insists on behaving like an adolescent," he concluded. 

Given Crooks' deep-rooted disdain for individualism, Pogba should take solace from the fact being called Garth, not Gareth, has almost certainly driven him to distraction over the years. On Saturday night, Phil Neville was at it on Match of the Day. Pogba was exceptional, despite the haircut, was the tone. All this from a man who was still putting blond highlights in his hair way into his mid-30s. Pogba would be better taking styling tips from Vin Diesel.

When Pogba plays, he gives United personality. His personality. By God, they need it. Instantly, they go from being taciturn, introverted to the point talented players seem happy to be wallflowers, to being gregarious and fun again. It's as though a switch has been flicked. 

While Mourinho has met any inquires over his side's aesthetic appeal with the incredulity one might reserve to being asked live on air about sexual orientation or political persuasion, the fact is, for a significant portion of Pogba's absence, watching United has been akin to watching paint dry.

There was nothing dour about Saturday. It recalled those early weeks of the season, when Pogba and Nemanja Matic looked to be the most convincing central-midfield pairing at Old Trafford since Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. Mourinho has spoken of how the Serb is his "stability player," the one most in tune with how he thinks, who explicitly understands how he likes to manage games.

If the relationship between manager and player is almost telepathic, there's a similar understanding building between Matic and Pogba. The former was happy to revert to being the straight man on Saturday.

Pogba was everywhere in the 70 minutes he managed before being replaced by Marouane Fellaini. The home side was flat in the early sparring, deservedly falling behind to an enterprising Newcastle outfit when Dwight Gayle steered in on 14 minutes. In the process, he became the first visiting player to score in the league at Old Trafford this season.

The goal, which marked the only time in the game Pogba looked at all leggy, failing to get back having been caught ahead of the ball, came about after the unfortunate Victor Lindelof had slipped in the box. In terms of acclimatising to the rarefied air at Old Trafford, the Swede looks like an astronaut attempting Mars without a space helmet.

If collectively Manchester United showed a little ring rust after the international break, Pogba in his first game for 67 days for the most part could not have been more at ease had he been wearing silk pyjamas. Repeatedly he'd drop deep and take the ball off his central defenders' toes, like someone helping elderly folk who can't quite get the hang of self-scanning in a supermarket.

"Here you go, love—it's easy when you know how," he'd tell Chris Smalling or Lindelof before pinging a 60-yard pass to feet.

Though Wayne Rooney might grumble about people hailing Pogba for switching the play when they used to harangue him for it, there's a marked difference. In the time it took Rooney to hoik one from left to right, Antonio Valencia would often collect his dry cleaning while he waited. 

Pogba hits a pass as soon as he sees it, which is often before everyone else. It's not just the eye-catching stuff that sets him apart—if anything, he tries to do too much on occasion. It's rather his presence makes other players play better. United make more chances with him in the team, look more cohesive and confident.

When there's not a pass on, he's not afraid to back himself to make an opening rather than take the safe option. That was the situation when he received the ball on the left-hand side of Newcastle's box, with Isaac Hayden in a good position to block his route to the byline.

A normal player might have played for the corner or pulled the ball back to Valencia. Instead, he shimmied his body back, then forward and then repeated it, like a driver trying to reverse out of a tight spot. With a yard successfully made after neat footwork, Pogba stood up a lovely dinked cross to the back post to allow Anthony Martial to nod in for a seventh goal in just 746 minutes of football this season.

From that moment onward, only one United was going to win it. Smalling's header from the born-again Ashley Young's looped deep delivery to the back post gave the home side the lead on the cusp of half-time. Before that, as Mourinho recognised post-match, Rafa Benitez's "very experienced, very intelligent" tactics had nullified the Manchester side to the point it forced him to change formation at the break, per Chris Waugh of the Newcastle Chronicle

The game was put to bed when Pogba made the type of third-man run that has been so lacking in United's play since his injury. It was a goal of the ilk the other lot across the city have been scoring at will all season.

When Juan Mata played the ball into open ground deep in Newcastle territory for Lukaku to bound into down the right, both Pogba and Marcus Rashford were still in their own half. Rashford, so far back he was off screen at the time, eased past everyone else in the field like sprinter Michael Johnson used to on a bend. His cushioned header into the path of Pogba for a tap-in should, if there's any justice in the world, earn Rashford an honorary degree from Manchester University, such was its intelligence.

On the return of his close friend, Lukaku played with a bounce in his step that had been absent in a number of leaden performances during his seven-game spell without a goal. He ended it in the most emphatic fashion.

After a cute one-two with Mata, he made contact with the ball as though his express intention was to burst it. The net gloriously bulged in a way that must have been the norm in bygone days, when the ball was heavier than a baby rhino. On the sideline, the recently departed Pogba danced a celebratory jig before making his way down the tunnel.

Mourinho's celebration was equally telling. In normal circumstances, a goal of such relative insignificance would have barely merited acknowledgement. But here he was, off his feet with fists pumping. It's not just the manager who knows the key to a title tilt is having a reliable goalscorer.

Every member of United's side made their way over to Lukaku after his first goal for the club since September 30. It is perhaps worth noting how the first cheers for Zlatan Ibrahimovic stepping off the bench to warm-up on the touchline arrived on 66 minutes. Four minutes later, Lukaku had broken his duck. Proper players thrive rather than wilt under pressure.

For those that will chime "it's only Newcastle," with some justification, it's worth wheeling out the numbers that paint a fairly convincing portrait of Pogba as a player of no little standing.

United's win rate in the Premier League with Pogba is 58 per cent; without him, it drops to 38 per cent. In the five league games he has started this season, United have scored 16 goals. That's an average of 3.2 per game. For context, Manchester City, in the best-ever start to a Premier League season, are averaging 3.33. Albeit that's over an incredible 12 fixtures, as opposed to five.

In those five matches, wherein he has played 430 minutes of football, Pogba has three goals and as many assists. That's a direct contribution to a goal every 71 minutes. In his past six Premier League matches, those numbers swell to four goals and four assists.

Given Saturday's win represented the seventh time this season in 18 matches in all competitions United have scored four times, such overt criticism of their style of play does seem a little heavy-handed. They have the best defensive record in the league and have scored seven more goals, not to mention beaten, the much-feted Tottenham Hotspur.

Still, Mourinho hardly helps himself. Keeping Martial and Rashford apart feels like refusing to allow twins to play with one another on the grounds they are too similar. It's cruel—for them and us. On Saturday, there was a sense it was with reluctance he had relented to start the pair of them either side of Lukaku.

At full-time, after a game that saw United come from behind to win for just the third time during his tenure, Mourinho was simultaneously relaxed yet circumspect. On how Martial and Rashford had done on just their 12th start together, he said (via Samuel Luckhurst for the Daily Mirror): "To play them together gives us things but also takes some things from us."

Most would argue it gives excitement and takes away tedium. Most have a fairly empty trophy cabinet in comparison to Mourinho's.

His reservations about a lack of balance because of a twin predilection to drift to the left, which necessitated a switch to a 4-4-2 formation in the second half, when United were much improved, should not be dismissed as conservatism.

Football bosses think about balance as often as bank managers do, whereas fans—and not a small number of journalists—just want to spend and then luxuriate in what they have bought. There's nothing wrong with that. It's not our job to lose.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger could not be any more different to Mourinho yet faces similar criticism. Saturday's north London derby win over Tottenham was just the fifth time he has started with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette in the same team. They have won all five games.

Supporters will argue the penny has finally dropped for both men, and perhaps it's as simple as that. However, one suspects they know a thing or two about how the rhythm of a side works. Perhaps it is as often determined by those not picked as those that are.

With Ibrahimovic back in the equation after making what looks to be a remarkably rapid recovery from a cruciate ligament injury, Martial and Rashford will, in all likelihood, spend as much time apart as they do together. On Saturday, it looked as though Ibrahimovic was auditioning for a slightly deeper role behind Lukaku. He looked sharp and innovative in building the play, albeit at a time in the game when the pace was akin to a testimonial.

For Pogba, there are no such fears of being used sparingly. Mourinho insists he will protect his talisman while conceding his side is a better one with Pogba in it. Much better.

After labelling him "different class," which is quite the admission from a man who, throughout his career, has always shifted the focus from the individual to the team, Mourinho added, per Sky Sports: "He affects our football. We all know, myself and the fellow players, that certain players influence the levels of the team. With him we have much more creation. I am so happy."

There can be few greater compliments in football than having the capacity to make Mourinho happy. It seems the kid with a smile as wide as the Stretford End can do it at will.


All stats worked out via unless otherwise stated.


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