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Pogba key to Manchester United's potential title challenge

09:00 GMT 02/01/2021
Paul Pogba Manchester United 2020-21
The midfielder excelled as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side beat Aston Villa 2-1 to go level on points with Liverpool at the top of the table

If someone had told you a couple of months ago that Manchester United would be level on points at the top of the Premier League with Paul Pogba running the show, you might have questioned their sanity.

Just under 12 weeks ago, United were humiliated by Tottenham and Pogba was struggling for game time. Indeed, there were some who called for the midfielder never to play for the club again after the badly timed comments from his agent, Mino Raiola, who claimed his client is unhappy and wants away from Old Trafford. 

It is, therefore, hard to believe that this Manchester United, the same team that started the season so badly and with one of their star players angling for an exit, is starting to show they might just be capable of mounting a title challenge.

When Pogba pledged to give 100 per cent following those transfer comments, many could have been forgiven for thinking it was mere lip service. But, to be fair to the France international, he has upped his performances in the past month and, based on his display against Aston Villa, he is going to be key if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are to seriously challenge Liverpool.

“We’re happy with his contribution,” Solskjaer said after the 2-1 win against Aston Villa. “It’s important that we get Paul on the ball whether low in the pitch or higher between the lines. He started off out wide defending but we wanted him to make runs in behind and get on the ball. 

“His physical presence is important for us. They are one of the strongest physical sides in the league and we needed players to match them. I was delighted with his performance.”

And you can see why. He was pivotal for United, pulling the strings in midfield as he battled to help both offensively and defensively. His touch, control, work-rate, ability to switch the play and just his sheer physical presence in the middle gives Solskjaer’s team another dimension.

“Paul is getting fitter and stronger and you get performances like tonight,” Solskjaer continued. “It took him 25 mins to get going but then he made a difference.”

United are going to need those difference-making players in the next few weeks as they travel to Burnley before a pivotal clash against Liverpool at Anfield. 

While Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Anthony Martial got the plaudits for United’s opening goal, Pogba also deserves recognition for a sublime piece of control and flick that started the move. There aren’t many, if any, other players within that squad that have that ability in their locker.

This was Pogba at his best, creating chances and conducting play like an experienced orchestra leader. There was a chance for Fernandes in the 10th minute, another for Martial and then the Portuguese returned the favour for Pogba in the 24th minute only for the midfielder to drag his shot wide.

For a player that ‘doesn’t want to be there’, he certainly isn’t afraid of putting in a shift. Only Luke Shaw covered more ground and his recoveries (six) were testament to the hard work he put in against Dean Smith’s side – he was everywhere. 

He could, and probably should, have had a goal to wrap up a very good display when he pulled his shot wide from six yards out as United went searching for their third of the game.

And it was a goal United could have done with to prevent the nervous last 10 minutes which saw a good save by David de Gea deny Matty Cash and a block from Eric Bailly deep into injury time secure the three points and extend their unbeaten run in the league to 10 games.

“I think we should have played out the game better, managed the last 10 minutes better,” Solskjaer said “If we’d been 3-1 up... There’s a reason for the colour of my hair, and that’s because we like to do it the hard way.”

They certainly haven’t got to where they are in the table by doing things the easy way. But with Pogba in the side and performing the way he did on Friday night, there could be simpler wins on the horizon.