Paul Pogba may have spent the last two years desiring a move to the Bernabeu, but on Friday the midfielder had Manchester United moving a bit like Real Madrid. Yes, really. And through that, appropriately, he also gave him and his side a glimpse of a different and better future.
One of the hallmarks of Madrid’s recent spell of Champions League success has been how the ball-playing ability of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos has imposed a style of play, so the entire team can impose themselves on the opposition. A manager like Zinedine Zidane is thereby left to psychologically manage the squad and make little tweaks, while those two ensure Madrid have a lot of the ball, and know what to do with it.
This obviously isn’t to say Pogba and Bruno Fernandes are as good as Modric and Kroos, or that this United can match a side that won three successive Champions Leagues. There are clear differences – not least in quality – and it’s not a complete comparison. But Madrid did want Pogba to replace one of those two, and there are broad similarities.
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There is first of all a squad with plenty of pace, and a manager who is very popular with the players, but has had questions asked about what his exact style is. There are then these two midfielders who ensure there that there can only be one major style. That’s taking the ball on, and taking the game to the opposition.
As with Modric and Kroos, then, the range of passing of Fernandes and Pogba adds a further spark and creativity to that possession. The difference when Pogba came on at Tottenham Hotspur was that stark, not least between the two sides.
Fernandes had already ensured that United were dominating the play. Spurs just couldn’t compete with that. They didn’t have the midfielder, and it’s possible they didn’t have the idea. Jose Mourinho may fairly quibble that’s the role the absent Tanguy N’Dombele is meant to have, but even then the Portuguese has never been too intent on playing in midfield unless it’s getting the ball through there as quickly as possible on the counter-attack.
From that, Fernandes had been the most productive player on the pitch. He was the player offering by far the best passes, and his long shots had troubled Hugo Lloris.
There is still a very slight raggedness to some of his play, although that could perhaps be put down to the long break. Even some of his better balls, however, looked ragged against what Pogba did in the 85th minute. That, simply, was sublime.
The midfielder took command of a counter with a quick piece of control off the chest and heel, before playing the most magnificent half-volley into the path of Marcus Rashford. The delivery and trajectory were just divine.
This was real thoroughbred stuff, and a timely reminder of why United have persisted with Pogba for so long, despite so many frustrations. To say they don’t miss him suddenly sounds ridiculous. This is why, when he’s doing it and he’s bothered, he really is one of the best around. His talent and potential influence should not be forgotten. It won’t be if he continues with contributions like this.
Because that pass also followed the midfielder’s main influence on the game, from some glorious ingenuity. His footwork got him past Eric Dier, then drew the midfielder into the foul for the penalty.
Fernandes converted the penalty and even though it wasn’t a direct combination between the two, it was appropriate for the way it followed some of their hugely encouraging link-ups.
Two players of such class are always going to naturally hit it off, but it wasn’t entirely instinctive, as Fernandes said.
“We are training hard in the past weeks, when we’re in groups, I’m in the group with Paul, so to find the connection with him is easier.”
Solskjaer backed this, while also enthusing about Pogba’s attitude.
“We’re a club who want the best players in the world playing together, we need to find a balance between attacking and defending, that’s key when you set the team up. But Paul showed he can play with Bruno and Bruno got a penalty for us and scored the goal.”
The word is that Pogba now looks a much happier figure, with a smile on the training ground that’s rubbing off on people. That may indicate he’s accepted he isn’t getting his move to Madrid. But if United are moving a bit like their attack, it might no longer be such a problem.