Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Pogba shone as Manchester United won 3-2 at Old Trafford
Last Updated: 06/10/18 9:56pm
Paul Pogba’s relationship with Jose Mourinho has been close to breaking point recently but he was the inspiration behind Manchester United’s comeback against Newcastle. Has he rescued his manager from the sack?
If Jose Mourinho’s situation was desperate before kick-off at Old Trafford, then it is difficult to describe quite how bad it was at half-time. Newcastle had not won a game all season – they had not even taken a lead – but Manchester United’s malaise was such that even one of the Premier League’s most out-of-form sides were able to take advantage.
The speculation surrounding Mourinho’s future had been dismissed by the club in the build-up, but after that dreadful opening 45 minutes, it certainly seemed as though he was lurching towards the exit. His side were two goals down and it could have been worse. Mourinho had been cheered on his way out of the tunnel but there were boos on his way back down it.
United’s dismal first-half display was summed up by the goals. For the first, Nemanja Matic was caught out by a simple throw-in, giving Ayoze Perez the freedom to find Kenedy, who easily eluded Ashley Young to fire home. For the second, Jonjo Shelvey was given space to cross for Yoshinori Muto. Again, United’s defenders were nowhere near him.
Mourinho described the first-half display as “absolute panic” after the game, and the sense of disarray consumed the entire team.
Defensively, they were a mess. Eric Bailly was the fall guy, replaced by Juan Mata after just 19 minutes, but Scott McTominay fared no better. At the other end, the lack of composure was alarming. Routine passes went astray and attacks broke down.
Mourinho made his second substitution at the break, with Marouane Fellaini replacing McTominay, but the most important alteration was Paul Pogba’s move into deep midfield. Initially, the structure of the team looked bizarre, with Matic and Pogba seemingly taking it in turns to drop into the defence, but soon the Frenchman began to exert his influence.
By the end of the game, he had completed 78 out of 87 passes, 52 of which came in Newcastle’s half. He was able to direct United’s attacks from the base of midfield and he was up and down the pitch, too. For the equaliser, it was his smart backheel which set up Anthony Martial in Newcastle’s box. For the winner, his pass allowed Young to pick out Alexis Sanchez.
Pogba’s commitment has been questioned recently – his relationship with Mourinho scrutinised from every possible angle – but a week after he was hooked with 20 minutes to spare at West Ham’s London Stadium, his second-half performance made a mockery of any suggestions that he is no longer playing for his manager.
On the contrary, he worked harder than ever. Pogba found himself manning United’s midfield almost single-handedly at times – such was the desperation of the situation – but in difficult circumstances, his determination and work-rate were second to none.
The statistics proved it. According to Premier League tracking data supplied by Opta, Pogba ran almost a kilometre further than in any other Premier League game all season. He also made twice as many high-intensity sprints. The Frenchman competed more duels than any of his team-mates and there were important tackles and clearances, too.
Mourinho spoke of “mentality”, “desire” and “commitment” after the game and no one typified those traits quite like Pogba. Mourinho deserves credit for the tactical switch which allowed him to dominate the game, but the performance was all his own.
Mourinho is entitled to wonder why Pogba does not summon performances like this more often, but for now he will just be grateful that one of his most problematic players has helped to keep him in the job. His future is by no means guaranteed, but it is far brighter than it was at the halfway point at Old Trafford. And that owes a lot to Pogba.
If you’re reading on skysports.com comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click ‘Report’.