Paul Pogba supplied an incredible four assists in Manchester United’s opening game against Leeds, writes Ryan Baldi.
Pogba played just 75 minutes of Manchester United’s 2021-22 season opener against Leeds at Old Trafford on Saturday, making way for new signing Jadon Sancho with a 5-1 win already sewn up, but that was all the Frenchman needed to surpass his Premier League assists total for the entirety of the last campaign.
Bruno Fernandes stole the headlines with his 60-minute hat-trick, but Pogba’s influence on the game, poking holes in the Leeds defence at will on his way to a haul of four assists – a mark only six players in Premier League history have ever been able to match in a single game – was undeniable.
And this game, in many ways, was the perfect exemplar of United’s ideal midfield dynamic. If they are to be successful in narrowing the gap to champions Manchester City this season, it will be with Fernandes providing the penetration, the goals and decisive moments around the penalty area, and Pogba pulling the strings, leading sweeping counter-attacks or unpicking stubborn, deep-set defences.
Pogba’s first assist of the Leeds rout signaled the midfielder’s virtuoso mood. His punchy, stabbed pass released Fernandes in behind the Leeds backline after 30 minutes and the Portuguese found the net despite a hefty touch off goalkeeper Illan Meslier.
The second goal the United No.6 created came via the kind of pass few players in the world have the vision even to try, let alone execute.
From well inside his own half, Pogba slid an inch-perfect low through-ball for the rampaging Mason Greenwood, placing it with such precision that had it landed on any other blade of grass it would either have evaded the teenager attacker or been intercepted. Greenwood drove forward into the penalty area and fired a thumping drive into the far corner with his left foot for one of the standout goals of the new season’s first weekend of fixtures.
Pogba slipped Fernandes through to score again two minutes later, before bursting down the left flank and cutting back for Fred to finish from the edge of the penalty area in the 68th minute.
Pogba’s four assists came from five chances created in total, part of the kind of all-round display the 28-year-old is regularly criticized for not producing often enough, adding two shots, an interception and a tackle in 50 touches.
“Impressive,” began Solskjaer’s succinct post-match summation of Pogba’s performance. “Paul’s always got that vision, he’s got that quality.”
Incase you missed Manchester United this weekend.
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“Amazing,” said hat-trick hero Fernandes of his midfield cohort. “He’s doing really well and he’s such a big player. Everybody knows that and I hope he can keep getting better and better, because I think he can still do so much more. I’m pretty sure Paul could do five or six [assists] in one game.
“Paul is a quality player; we all trust him, we all know his qualities. The point is making those performances and to help the team do better and I’m pretty sure Paul is here to do that.”
In truth, Leeds provided little resistance. Beaten 6-2 in the same fixture last season, it seems Marcelo Bielsa’s side have few answers at Old Trafford, overcommitting to attack and being punished by clinical finishing.
But part of the key to Pogba’s ability to carve the away side open time and time again was how the work of Scott McTominay and Fred – the defensive-midfield axis affectionately nicknamed “McFred” – freed him of too great a defensive burden when out of possession. How able Pogba is to replicate such a display on a regular basis and against tougher opposition will depend on United being able to offer the kind of protection McFred provided on Saturday – or, better still, with the signing of a top-quality specialist defensive midfielder who can do the work of both players.
Throughout the summer, it appears United haven’t been entirely sure they’d be able to count on the World Cup winner’s services come the season’s commencement, with rumours of moves to Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain a constant. And, with his current contract set to expire at the end of the season and no renewal yet in sight, they don’t exactly know how much longer he’ll be around.
But for however long Pogba continues to call Old Trafford home, fully utilizing his creative gifts, as they did on Saturday afternoon, will be of vital importance to United if their evident progress under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is to continue.