When the ball landed on Paul Pogba just outside a nearly empty Johnny Haynes booth at Craven Cottage around a quarter to ten on Wednesday night, BT Sport commentators Darren Fletcher and Jermaine Jenas were chatting in slow motion on the heading capacity of the center of Fulham. back Joachim Anderssen. There was nothing really, so who can blame them?
Pogba was near the touchline, the ball he received was difficult to knock down, there were no good passing options available and there were 35 yards and five Fulham players, including the keeper, in between. him and the goal.
Six seconds later, the ball was at the back of the net, Fletcher was squealing and the Fulham players looked at each other in stunned silence, as if to say, “We didn’t see this coming.” Then again, Fletcher didn’t see it coming, Jenas didn’t see it coming, I didn’t see it coming, and – more than likely – neither did you.
It was a lens from scratch – a lens that perfectly summed up the unique brilliance of Paul pogba and the one who proved the difference between the sides in a tight and wary game. Fulham had a few chances late, but Pogba and his teammates fought, saw the game and got three more points, three other points that brought them back to the top of the Premier League
United top halfway through the season is something few expected in October. Frankly, it seems incongruous; not just because it was unexpected, but because, if we’re brutally honest, Manchester United haven’t really been that good this season. Or at least they weren’t good at the way we’ve come to define “good”; they didn’t play well the way we have come to think “good”.
Over the past three seasons we have seen two of the most complete, cohesive and articulate club teams England have ever produced go head to head for the title. Manchester City and Liverpool both crashed in their path with their differing views on a suffocating high press and inhumanly well-coordinated offensive moves.
It was, it would seem, the completion of English football’s gradual shift from a game based on the heroic individual to an exercise in super-conformist mechanics and without passengers of perfect mechanics and geometry, populated dozens of very technically competent and extremely obedient people. running bots.
Seeing United lead, then, is shocking.
The Solksjaer are not a complete mess collectively. They are organized, solid and, if necessary, compact defensively, as they showed against Liverpool last weekend. And more recently, they had a clear plan; or rather, two variations on a clear plane. Against more powerful teams, they play a 4-2-3-1 with two starting midfielders and Pogba on the sidelines; against fewer and more cautious teams, they play a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba as one of the central two.
But it makes no sense that Solskjaer is contributing anything to the tactical development of football more broadly, as was the case with Guardiola and then Klopp. United remain a team that rarely, if ever, stage a scintillating 90-minute display of compelling team football.
Instead, they often look to individuals to produce winning moments around the edge of the 18-yard surface. Like the goal mentioned by Pogba on Wednesday, or the final end against Burnley eight days before; like Bruno Fernandes’ pass and Marcus Rashford’s skill that led to the winner against Wolves; like Edinson Cavani’s brilliant assist for Fernandes against Leicester or Marcus Rashford’s magnificent first goal against Sheffield United.
Manchester City are the bookies’ favorite for the title and if they win their game in hand, the league is in their hands. But United’s progress this season, the fact that they’re up there and fighting, perhaps shows the enduring value of taking on the remarkable individual, the player who can come to the rescue when his team is down. in need, and to give him the freedom to perform well. individual acts.
While City and Liverpool clearly have fantastic players, it often seems that their individualism, their freedom to play on their own, is subsumed by commitment to the collective. That’s certainly how we felt because, in the absence of Sergio Aguero, we saw Pep Guardiola’s side collapse lifeless in the Champions League in August. And again, it looked like Jurgen Klopp’s men were huffing and puffing against Burnley at Anfield on Thursday.
Indeed, Liverpool’s signing of Thiago Alcantara was a blatant admission that they still needed this unique, free-thinking player with the tools to unlock a tight rearguard. Unfortunately for them, he has spent most of this season injured and was forced on Thursday to play in the deepest of the three midfield roles, from which he was unable to affect the game the way he wanted, while Fabinho fell again in central defense to cover absent Virgil van Dijk.
Yet at Pogba and Fernandes, and to a lesser extent Cavani and Rashford, United have these mavericks, these individuals capable of magical moments even when the team is playing poorly. And the absence of a all-consuming idea of how the team should operate in any situation at all times, they are perhaps a little more free to do whatever they see fit to win a given game.
While he may not have reinvented the wheel, thanks to good man management and a semblance of basic structure, Solskjaer was able to put Pogba and Fernandes in the right places, both physically and mentally, to demonstrate their supreme talents. For that he deserves at least a little credit, even from those of us who doubted him.