The term “like a new signing” is tragically overused these days, but it would be wonderfully appropriate for Paul Pogba, who has returned from a three-month injury layoff to set Manchester United’s midfield alight.
It would be easy to say, given United’s pair of disappointing results in his return, that Pogba’s influence has made little difference, but that would be a lazy point of view.
While his introduction against Middlesbrough wasn’t enough to keep the Red Devils in the FA Cup and it couldn’t keep them from dropping points to relegation-threatened Burnley, Pogba’s presence was felt in each deployment.
Manchester United had sputtered during Pogba’s absence, with Ralf Rangnick making numerous tactical changes to find the right formula for success. What he missed was a World Cup-winning midfielder in the side.
Pogba’s first two performances back were vastly different, but both critical to the club’s success. Against Middlesbrough, Pogba was deployed deeper, alongside Scott McTominay in a double-six behind Bruno Fernandes. He was afforded less ability to get forward and create, but his defensive proficiencies were on full display.
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Pogba was brilliant against Middlesbrough in his defined role, 49/57 passing and hitting on four of his five long balls, while successful in all three of his attempted dribbles and three of his four aerial duels. He lost possession just 16 times in 80 total touches.
Against Burnley, Pogba was positioned higher up the pitch, this time next to Bruno Fernandes in a double-eight. In the steady Lancashire rain, the Frenchman was a steady presence. His first-half goal highlighted the afternoon, one of the best in the world at trailing an attacking move and having a sixth sense for drifting into open space.
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While that moment rubber-stamped his excellent performance, the goal was far from his only contribution in the match. Up and down the pitch, Pogba was a vocal leader, pointing at open players for teammates to pass to and serving as field general in build-up.
His temper was tested on a thundering run through midfield that forced Josh Brownhill to wrestle him off the ball, earning the Burnley man a yellow card and seeing Pogba toss his armband in vicious anger. The moment was indicative of Pogba’s contributions and Burnley’s attempts to diminish their actual return.
Pogba’s statical production from the match reflected his riskier attacking mentality. In 74 touches, Pogba delivered 72% pass success rate (43/59) and won just four of his 11 ground duels, but he was an aerial force, winning seven of 10 duels in the air. He lost possession 21 times, many of which came down the stretch as United threw caution to the wind and pushed for a winner.
With 10 minutes remaining, an injury to holding midfielder McTominay forced Pogba back into a more defensive role, and he was unable to be a continued influence further upfield as United failed to find a winning goal.
Pogba can’t do both. Ralf Rangnick will need to decide which role suits the Frenchman better, and which the Manchester United squad needs most. His defensive abilities are assured, and his creative aggression is relentless, yet Pogba is but one footballer.
Dropping points from a leading position against a relegation-threatened side is a poor return whichever way the match is sliced. Still, it was never going to be easy for Manchester United against Burnley, a club fighting for its Premier League survival and extremely stout defensively. Neither this disappointing result nor the FA Cup exit should diminish the bump in quality Pogba has brought to the Red Devils side.
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Pogba’s excellent performance in a negative result once again highlights the tall task in front of Manchester United. The Frenchman’s contract is up this summer, and has given no indication of his intentions. With Mino Raiola at the helm of negotiations, money is always a significant factor, but so is Champions League play.
If United cannot secure a top four place — their chances have dropped to just 15 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight — it’s likely Pogba would leave, with PSG rumored to be leading the charge. Ralf Rangnick may be interim manager, but he could leave a permanent mark on the club based on results the rest of the season. An inability to keep Pogba at Old Trafford would be a failure of epic proportions.