Question marks have hovered over Paul Pogba’s head for a while now but he is very much a part of Manchester United’s title charge at the moment. It’s more exclamation marks than question marks as the French midfielder is showing both glitz and grit to aid United’s charge for the summit.
Against Burnley he dominated midfield and drove forward at the home side’s well-organised defence. He had more touches than anyone else on the pitch and grew in influence in the second half. It led to him scoring the winning goal in the 71st minute to settle this compelling, draining game.
Pogba pivotal in Burnley win
The accusation often levelled at Pogba whilst he’s been back at United is that it’s all style and no substance; he is capable of great moments but not necessarily great consistence performances. And so there is no coincidence that as Pogba has became a more reliable performer in recent weeks, his team have benefitted hugely.
His goal at Turf Moor was well taken, meeting a Marcus Rashford cross with a half-volley - pedants may highlight it took a deflection of Matt Lowton, but Pogba’s shot was on it’s way to goal and the power could have taken it past Nick Pope anyhow. The Frenchman’s overall display was compelling, the best on the pitch, and it spoke of his desire that it was he who set his own goal in motion by winning an aerial duel on halfway.
For Pogba’s upturn in form, credit must go to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. While Jose Mourinho, the previous United manager, went to war with the World Cup winning midfielder, Solskjaer has showcased his man-management skills to get the best out of him - even if there is a temperamental agent in toe.
Solskjaer has neither indulged Pogba nor cut him off; he has allowed the gifted midfielder the chance to work his way back into the team. From bench to brilliance at Burnley. The United manager will hope that it’s more of the same at Anfield on Sunday.
“I’ve always said Paul is a big player for us,” Solskjaer said at full-time. “He’s a good character in the dressing room, he’s someone the lads look to, he’s a world champion. We’re seeing the best of Paul at the moment – he’s been injured and he’s had Covid so it’s natural to need to get back to fitness after that.”
Strong selection shows Solskjaer’s thinking
The United manager also got his team selection spot on as he demonstrated that he is taking each game as it comes and on its own merit. It would have been easy for Solskjaer to have Liverpool in mind when he picked his team for Burnley: Harry Maguire, who is one yellow card away from suspension, was chosen, as were Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly, both had been injury concerns going into the match.
Solskjaer had to go strong because, in many respects, this game was more important than Liverpool. Had United not performed well here, and got the win, then the mood would not have been as positive as it is heading into the weekend’s enticing fixture.
United also started with Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani together in a front four for the first time in the Premier League. It was attack-minded and also a nod towards Burnley’s physicality. As was the selection of Nemanja Matic, who will most likely make way for Scott McTominay or Fred at Anfield.
There are still doubts, however, regarding the merit of positioning Rashford out on the right. He is much more adept on the left, drifting in and causing defences issues, and since Solskjaer has used him on the right his displays have not been as effective - albeit he did assist for Pogba’s goals here.
It will therefore be interesting to see how Solskjaer lines up his attack against Liverpool, who have been riddled with injuries in defence all season. Pogba, as shown at Turf Moor, is more suited to the double pivot role deeper in midfield.
Martial, meanwhile, has been quiet for the past few games when he has been placed both centrally and on the left. He has only one goal in the last six games in all competitions and has managed just two goals in the league this season despite starting 11 games.
There are now five days for Solskjaer to dream up his plan for Sunday when the emphasis won’t necessarily be on United winning, given Liverpool’s imperious home record and it’s their chance to react, although they are now the league leaders and so expectations rise and the focus intensifies.