Paul Pogba's presence giving Manchester United a head for heights
Paul Pogba's debut did not start well but the way he and Jose Mourinho's Manchester United side responded shows they are rapidly gaining a head for heights, writes Richard Jolly.
Spend £89 million and Manchester United got a miskick. Paul Pogba’s first meaningful touch as a world record holder was a miscue, a mistake. Marouane Fellaini would have been lampooned for it last season. The Pogbow began badly.
Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action with Southampton's Jordy ClasieReuters
The ego, the personality, the sense of stardom: much of what Mourinho sees in Pogba he may recognise in the mirror. But the strength of personality explains why the Pogbow ended with plaudits: without the goal the Frenchman craved but with three points procured by a man who cost £89 million less than him on a night to indicate that, on the pitch and in the technical area alike, United have undergone a significant upgrade.
Pogba’s was a performance of pace and power, of ambition and audacity, of the skill to saunter away from opponents and the drive to surge past them. A shot whistled wide and a header flew over the bar while passes were misplaced at times, but even those tended to be the products of a desperation to impress. “Paul Pogba was fantastic,” said Mourinho. “He’s learning to play with us.” To misquote one of Wayne Rooney’s tattoos, Pogba had enough education to perform.
The debut of the world’s most expensive footballer showcased his attributes and hinted at his potential. United have not had such a multi-dimensional midfielder for years. Some have been hampered by injuries or age or tactics or being Tom Cleverley. No one has allied such size, pace and force with technical excellence, willingness to create and eye for a goal. None, of course, have cost £89 million.
Anthony Martial, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul PogbaAFP
United’s executive vice-chairman could savour the sight of two. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had the temerity to upstage Pogba. He is Zlatan and he doesn’t like to take second billing to anyone. He is Zlatan and he is a ready-made match-winner, scorer of four goals in three games already. The free transfer’s first brace in United colours meant Southampton were swept aside, a scourge of United at Old Trafford in Louis van Gaal’s reign retreating pointless to the South Coast.
But much has changed in the three months since United last staged a competitive game. There was an active presence in the technical area, an animated Mourinho forming an immediate contrast with Van Gaal, the man who remained stuck on his seat, clutching his clipboard.
A new era has been embraced. There were a host of fans in Pogba shirts, though it seemed almost as many were bearing Ibrahimovic’s name and number on their back, while the occasional Old Trafford hipster had opted for Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s instead. The Armenian’s bit-part role is one of the mysteries of the early Mourinho days. If the presence of Fellaini, Pogba’s unlikely sidekick, was another, the Portuguese explained how he was quick to phone the Belgian to reassure him he was integral to the new United – “I told him, forget everything you read. For me you don’t leave for sure” – and savoured his unlikely transformation into folk hero. “The [crowd’s] relationship with Fellaini is changing completely,” he said.
Old Trafford, an introspective, tormented place, last season feels as different as United’s gameplan is. Pogba showed a willingness to pass forwards that Van Gaal’s central midfielders were not permitted to demonstrate. Van Gaal, though, was the United manager who did not want to pursue Pogba. Mourinho is his predecessor’s antithesis.
He has removed the straitjacket and liberated his biggest buy. “I don’t know what position he plays,” he said. It felt a little disingenuous, but it was a good line. “We have to build a certain organisation around him but he has to play free,” Mourinho elaborated intriguingly. Free roles are often granted to No. 10s, not central midfielders.
But then Pogba is an exception, in his fee as well as much else. He stands out. He stands tall. He leaps high. United’s opening goal was a case in point, although Ibrahimovic jumped even higher to head in Rooney’s cross.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic is very good in the air but he's great with his feet,” said Mourinho. Ibrahimovic and Pogba are built like bouncers but possess the technique of the daintiest of undersized midfielders. Factor in Eric Bailly and the spine of Mourinho’s side is populated by his physically imposing signings. The Theatre of Dreams may be the land of the giants.
Van Gaal used to complain, somehow detaching himself from responsibility for it all, that he had a short side. Mourinho has a tall one. United’s aerial frailties arguably cost them a place in this season’s Champions League: May’s defeat at West Ham owed much to their inability to cope with the crossed ball. Now they are scoring from crosses again: Ibrahimovic in the Community Shield and against Southampton. United, topping the table for costly signings and Premier League points alike, are acquiring a head for heights.