Just four days after returning from his holidays, and after a period of some speculation about his relationship with his manager, Paul Pogba was back with a bang for Manchester United as he led them to a 2-1 win over Leicester City in Friday’s Premier League opener.
The midfielder spent the majority of the summer playing a key part in France’s World Cup triumph but was asked by Jose Mourinho to put in an 84-minute shift against Leicester due to Ander Herrera’s hamstring injury, and the Portuguese even handed him the captain’s armband.
It was quite the turn of events following reports that the rapport between the pair was strained and that Pogba was on the lookout for a move amid talk that Barcelona were ready to make a late bid for the 25-year-old. Viewed through any prism, he had hardly had the most ideal build-up to the new season.
But on opening night there came a stand-out display at both ends of the park, including the early penalty which set United on their way, as Pogba played like a man who had been preparing for this contest for months.
The Frenchman’s third-minute penalty was initially sparked by his own killer pass for the advancing Luke Shaw before the left-back pulled the ball back for Alexis Sanchez. When the Chilean’s shot was half-blocked by Wes Morgan it rebounded towards Daniel Amartey, whose instinct was to throw out an arm and concede a penalty.
After a heated-looking discussion between Pogba and Sanchez over who would take the spot-kick, it was the midfielder who tip-toed his way to the ball and struck clinically past Kasper Schmeichel.
Pogba would continue to influence things both with and without the ball, with two vital headers away from danger in his own six-yard box helping to dig United out of holes while most of their better moves in possession seemed to have the former Juventus man at their heart.
But despite that positive start United allowed Leicester to dictate much of the first half, often giving up space in the middle of the pitch and inviting the visitors to attack them. While Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof both pulled off excellent stops, and David de Gea made one fantastic save to keep out James Maddison, the weight of possession Leicester enjoyed will have been a real concern for Mourinho.
The manager was also showing his frustration in the second period as promising attacks came to nought in the midst of poor final pass options and miscommunication, and Mourinho’s mood was reflected in the stands too. Their best chance fell to substitute Romelu Lukaku but Schmeichel was able to get an outstretched foot to the Belgian’s weak effort.
They eventually got their second when Shaw netted his first ever goal at senior level after knocking the ball past Amartey to cap a great personal performance. It was a huge boost for a player who has been through the ringer over the last few years but had a positive pre-season.
As soon as the second goal was netted Pogba was substituted and received a much-deserved standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd, with Mourinho joining in before giving him a huge slap on the back in a very public bid to quell the talk of a rift.
Leicester pulled back a deserved goal in injury time as Jamie Vardy reacted quickest after Ricardo's right-wing cross had bounced off the far post, but United had enough in the tank to hang on.
They weren’t always convincing, but United got the win they so desperately needed after a difficult summer. With Fred and Andreas Pereira slotting in superbly alongside Pogba and the lack of a new centre-back signing being made to look irrelevant by the displays of Bailly and Lindelof, this was in many ways a perfect response from Mourinho’s side.
And if he can get Pogba playing like this every week, they shouldn’t go too far wrong.