Manchester United’s road to becoming Premier League title contenders has been long and windy, with plenty of bumps along the way.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side have received some mild criticism for a lack of adventure in recent away matches at the Emirates and Anfield but, in truth, nobody expected United to be pushing for England’s biggest honour this season.
Especially not after a dismal start to the season, which left the United boss under pressure and fighting for his job. A home defeat against Arsenal and a UEFA Champions League embarrassment away at Istanbul Basaksehir piled on the pressure ahead of a trip to Goodison Park back in October.
It was against Saturday’s upcoming opponents, Everton, where a corner was turned, unsurprisingly spearheaded by Bruno Fernandes. The midfielder’s brace and a first United goal for Edinson Cavani secured a 3-1 away win, some respite for Solskjaer and became the catalyst for a 13-match unbeaten run which would lift them to the Premier League’s summit.
Cavani’s role in the team has grown ever since then but the resurgence of Paul Pogba has been the biggest bonus in the United camp since the start of December.
Heading to Goodison Park at the start of November, it was unclear where Pogba fit in the long-term ideology of Solskjaer’s tactical set-up. The Frenchman started the season alongside Fernandes and Nemanja Matic in an offensive midfield trio but after United’s 6-1 humiliation against Tottenham Hotspur, Fred and Scott McTominay were recalled and never dislodged.
Between the victory at Everton and the turn of the year, Pogba and Fernandes would play together just once in a midfield three, away at bottom club Sheffield United, with the 27-year-old forced to play from the left-hand-side or, more often, from the bench.
It wasn’t until January 12 that Solskjaer would trust the midfield trio that started the season again, this time away at Burnley. It was an audition for Pogba to regain the manager’s trust and he passed with flying colours.
Free Manchester United newsletter
Manchester United smashed nine goals past Southampton on Tuesday night as they bounced back from disappointing results against Sheffield United and Arsenal in emphatic fashion.
The game was effectively over as a contest inside the first two minutes as Southampton were reduced to 10 men, but United still had to find the goals and they did exactly that, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial (two), Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes and Daniel James all getting on the scoresheet.
MEN Sport will bring you all the build-up to and reaction from every United match. You can have it all delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our daily newsletter. Just put your email address in the sign-up box at the top of this article, or simply follow this link. It’s free and only takes a few seconds.
Not only did the midfielder score the match-winning goal, but his defensive efforts were evident, using his considerable height and frame to excellent effect to combat Burnley’s direct approach.
When Pogba previously played alongside Fernandes, he would be caught high up the field too often, leaving United susceptible to quick breakaways, with only one defensive midfielder.
Against Burnley, Pogba made four tackles and successfully applied pressure to recover possession three times for his team in his defensive third. He won four aerial duels for his side and gave away just one foul. Most impressively, he recovered 11 loose balls.
Compared against his defensive contributions earlier in the season, Pogba’s positional awareness against teams aiming to use a low block and counter-attack has improved significantly.
Pogba’s performance at Burnley proved not to be a one-off. The midfielder was instrumental in an away win at Fulham eight days later, both offensively and defensively. His thunderous left-footed strike won the game for United but his commitment to improving his defensive side of the game ensured he was on the field to make the difference in the first place.
In the biggest matches, Pogba is still operating in a wide role and that is understandable as United continue to evolve into a team capable of controlling matches against elite opposition.
However, when it comes to breaking down the Premier League’s weaker sides, that pack their defence and offer little space in-behind, Pogba has proven he can be trusted once again.