Football News

“Back on their perch” – Five things learned as Paul Pogba lifts Man Utd to the top of the Premier League with win over Burnley

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:43, 12 January 2021

In a tight and tense night of football, Manchester United beat Burnley 0-1 to go top of the Premier League.

This is the first time Manchester United have gone top of the table this late into a season since 2012/13 under Sir Alex Ferguson. An eight-year wait has finally been ended just in time for a visit to defending Premier League champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.

1. Paul Pogba lifts

Manchester United fans have been through the mill with Paul Pogba. From their saviour to a frustrating presence to a problem child and everything in between. 2020 saw him overtaken by Bruno Fernandes as the team’s talisman, and his agent’s argumentative nature had led United fans to wonder.. do we need him?

Yes.

Yes you do need him.

Paul Pogba is a sensational player and the biggest difference between Manchester United’s first and second halves was that the Frenchman upped his intensity after the break and as a result United were a near-constant presence in the Burnley half and a more existential threat on the Burnley goal.

Pogba made use of every single bit of his bafflingly unique skill-set. He’d tackle, he’d cover, he’d run with the ball through the Burnley midfield, he’d aim passes over the Burnley defence, he’d win headers to prevent Burnley from advancing or destabilising the United defensive line, and he scored the match-winning goal with a beautiful (deflected) volley.

This was Pogba at his very best, not the Pogba the drags, that grinds, that sighs and winds the United fans up; this was the Pogba that lifts. Lifts his own game, lifts the team’s performance, lifts his club to the top of the league for the first time in forever. Paul Pogba lifts.

2. Burnley need another string to their bow

Burnley are great at defending and playing long balls n’ all that sort of thing. And perhaps you understand why they tried to do just that against Manchester United, exposing Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s aerial weakness with diagonal balls and doing damage off the second balls.

And that strategy worked for half an hour, kind of. United did look under threat but never seriously so. There was a specter of danger, rather than danger itself. Burnley needed something “more” to break United down. Something like Dwight McNeil’s dribbling and crossing; only McNeil was on the bench for the first hour of the match, only appearing 66 minutes into the match.

That is far too long to wait for Burnley to try and up the tempo, especially as United really took hold of the match in the second half. Shaun Dyche has to add another string to their bow (or more frequently use the string he already has) if Burnley are to do better.

3. Solskjaer’s Fergie-esque rotation

Sir Alex Ferguson made a habit of rotating his squad on a constant basis, making changes that seemed strange on paper but when you looked back at the season as a whole and then at the individual roles the players were playing, it all made sense.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to have finally gotten the hang of that. Unlike last year when he picked one XI and ran it into the ground, this time he is using his squad better (even as United failed to get him the key reinforcements he needed, especially Jadon Sancho).

Fred and Scott McTominay have developed a superb partnership in midfield and the two are fantastic at stopping opponents; but knowing that he was facing Burnley, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted for Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba, and the two ended up being key to United’s win as the Serb was superb all game and Pogba was the match-winner.

In attack he threw his three best forwards at Burnley, playing Marcus Rashford on the right knowing that his pace and trickery would allow him to penetrate there but also better track back Erik Pieters. And sure enough, Rashford never stopped plugging away on the right and his composured and measured approach ended up leading to the game-winning assist while Edinson Cavani’s defensive workrate proved crucial in preventing Burnley from ever building any real momentum (and his positioning should have led to two goals, but his finishing was poor).

What’s more, you wouldn’t expect this XI to play against Liverpool. McTominay and Fred will surely return, and given the injury to Anthony Martial you can see Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford playing up-front in a 3-5-2 or something similar.

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4. VA-nah

It’s been what feels like a decade since VAR was introduced in the Premier League (this is, in fact, just the third season) and what’s baffling is that the implementation of it and the decisions arising from its use are still as inconsistent and incoherent as ever.

Today we had three incidents that all seemed to be perfect for VAR to adjudicate on and each time they got it wrong, or they got it right but in a way they shouldn’t be able to? So first we have Luke Shaw’s tackle on Johann Berg Gudmundsson, which sees the left-back win a 50-50 challenge but catch the Burnley man with his follow-through.

Play goes on, Bruno Fernandes scorches a pass behind the Burnley defence and Edinson Cavani is in. He nutmegs Robbie Brady but the winger brings him down. A clear red card if ever there was one, but the referee John Moss gives a yellow. VAR goes to work, and you think it will rule for United, but after a long review process they decided that Shaw’s tackle was a foul, and a yellow, which invalidated everything after it including Brady’s red. But VAR isn’t supposed to rule on yellow card incidents, so why did they here?

And then later in the first-half Luke Shaw sent in a gorgeous back-post cross which Harry Maguire met with a miraculous back-post header; yet the referee ruled the goal out mid-slide in the Englishman’s celebration and VAR confirmed that baffling decision for what can only be described as a gentle caress of Maguire’s forearm into the back of the defender.

One day they’ll get VAR right, but it is not this day!

5. United one step away from a genuine title race

Yes, Manchester United are top of the league. Yes it’s been a long time and yes it must feel great for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United fans everywhere, but this was just the first step to becoming genuine title challengers. The second step, the crucial step, is yet to come.

Yes United are top, but if Liverpool beat them at Anfield (as they have done three times under Jurgen Klopp) then the Reds will retake top spot on goal difference. Now that still leaves United “technically” in the race, but the psychological blow of having an edge and then immediately losing it will reinforce The Red Devils’ sense that they’re not yet on Liverpool’s level. Meanwhile Klopp’s men will be oozing confidence as they reassert themselves over their upstart rivals.

If Liverpool win.

If Manchester United can go to Anfield and get a result, a draw or especially a win, then they will have maintained their advantage against the mighty champions of England. They will have been into their enemies back yard and emerged with their lead in tact or even extended.

This will reinforce United’s belief that they can do it, they can win the league, and it will further dent Liverpool’s belief that this might not be their year given all the injuries and dropped points. The Reds will still go to the end of the season of course, but a setback at the weekend would establish United as genuine title contenders and give us a genuine title race between the two biggest clubs in English football history.

Manchester United are one step from a title race, one step from getting back on their perch.

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