Pogba’s renaissance could be the fulcrum for a sustained, free-flowing title charge, writes Duncan Alexander.
Something felt different at Old Trafford last Saturday. Manchester United’s first game of the season came against geological rivals Leeds United, but even before the match had started a stadium full of fans (odd feeling #1) was cheering their side signing a long-held transfer target from Real Madrid (odd feeling #2) and then everyone went on to watch their side, inspired by the raking nonchalance of Paul Pogba’s passing, win 5-1 to go top of the league (odd feeling #3). 37 games to go, as per the regulations, but is this United’s season already? Are Manchester United back?
The signs are good, because while United were worthy runners-up to Manchester City last season, their home form cost them a genuine chance of winning the title. Five goals in one game represents 13% of their Old Trafford total in 2020-21, and that campaign included Southampton’s annual 9-0 top-flight defeat. Reduce that to a more sensible 3-0 win (as it would have been if Southampton had simply not bothered fielding a team) and the figure rises to 16%. Fixing the Theatre of Dreams, both in a results sense and in a Wi-Fi sense, was urgently required.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that because last season remains one of the weirdest outliers in English football history. The first ever campaign where there were more away wins than home wins means that every side did “badly” at home. Champions City lost four on their own patch, Liverpool lost six league games in a row at Anfield for the first time in their history, Leicester lost half of their games at the King Power, as did Everton at Goodison Park. With seven home wins in the Premier League already this season (5% of last season’s total already), we can expect to see the mother of all corrections in 2021-22, if pandemic developments don’t prevent a further absence of supporters at grounds.
So that makes it imperative that Manchester United maintain their curiously-under-the-radar away form. Avoid defeat at Southampton this weekend and it will be 27 away games unbeaten, equaling Arsenal’s all-time English top-flight record, which came as part of the London side’s 49 game unbeaten run, one of the most celebrated spells of rolling form in football history. It hasn’t really been that way for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but it’s no less impressive and given United are one of the most effective direct attacking teams in the Premier League, you have to imagine they will be one of the best away teams in the division this season, whether they maintain the unbeaten run or not. On MD1, United recorded only six sequences of 10+ passes, putting them in the lower reaches of the table, alongside Southampton in fact. Compare that to Chelsea who put together 25 as they completely dominated the ball in their game against Crystal Palace.
Paul Pogba only made 33 passes against Leeds but four of them were assists, as United had marginally less of the ball than Marcelo Bielsa’s side. And that’s absolutely the way they like it. 17 of Solskjaer’s Premier League wins as United manager have come in games where his side have had a possession rate of less than 50%.
Pogba currently has a staggering assists-per-90 rate of 4.8 in the Premier League this season. That will decrease but bagging four of them in game one gives him a real chance of hunting down the competition record for assists in a single season. Two players in the division’s history have produced 20 in a single season. Thierry Henry did it in 2002-03, before Kevin De Bruyne matched it in 2019-20. So that’s 1) a Frenchman and 2) a 28-year-old; Pogba ticks both of those boxes. It’s on.
Making predictions after one game of a new season is only marginally more worthwhile than doing so before the campaign starts, but Southampton have taken only 14 points in their 22 Premier League games since they defeated Liverpool in January. Saints gave up the second highest open play xG figure on the opening weekend and it feels like United’s forwards will be set flowing like Ralph Hasenhüttl’s tears after that Liverpool game, prompted by Paul Pogba, a player set free by the contractual freedom coming over the horizon next summer. What a way to go out.
Find more of Duncan’s insights at www.theanalyst.com