Manchester United

Pogba provides Manchester United with new threat ahead of Liverpool trip

The Frenchman is starting to prove that he can flourish in an entirely different role following Bruno Fernandes' arrival.

3:37pm on Thursday 14th January 2021
David Lynch

Had Manchester United's weekend visit to Liverpool come earlier in the campaign, it is hard to imagine Paul Pogba would be starting.

The Frenchman's poor early-season form, a foot injury, and some unhelpful comments from his agent, Mino Raiola, combined to make him a peripheral figure in the first few months of 2020-21.

But, after a recent renaissance that culminated in a winning goal at Burnley on Tuesday, Pogba appears to have made himself undroppable for Sunday's crucial visit to Anfield.

So, how did he do it?

A tricky start

It is perhaps no surprise that a player with a £90m pricetag faced huge expectations upon his return to Old Trafford in the summer of 2016.

Pogba was expected to instantly become Manchester United's go-to midfielder; the sort of dominant creative force he had not been even in a successful Juventus side.

The nearest the 27-year-old got to that was in 2018-19, when he scored 13 goals in 35 Premier League appearances during a tumultuous campaign that saw Jose Mourinho sacked -and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appointed his successor.

However, he otherwise struggled to live up to an unfair billing before his shortcomings were further exposed by Bruno Fernandes' arrival in January of last year.

The Portuguese assumed talismanic status with an ease that had escaped his new teammate, instantly taking on responsibility for orchestrating United attacks and chipping in with goals and assists.

For example, this season, he is averaging a simply ludicrous 1.17 goals or assists per 90 minutes in the Premier League - something his colleague has never come close to.

That sort of form left Pogba with little room for manoeuvre, particularly with the emerging Scott McTominay and an improving Fred bringing additional competition in deeper positions.

Perhaps that is why Raiola began paving the way for a summer move to Real Madrid prior to the turn of the year.

Even he did not see the evolution that was coming.

27 yrs - DM, M (C) - Man Utd
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A new man

To his credit, rather than simply waiting for a move, Pogba has undertaken a fascinating transformation that has potentially resurrected his Old Trafford career.

For starters, the France international is taking on fewer shots in games than at any point since he joined United four-and-a-half years ago.

An average of 1.23 shots per 90 minutes is way down from previous highs of 3.22 in 2017-18 and 2.87 in 2018-19, suggesting he is largely leaving that side of things to Fernandes and the strikers.

And that changing role is also borne out by statistics relating to passing and creativity.

The midfielder's completed passes in the final third (4.91 P90) are significantly down on last season (8.81), as are shot creating actions (3.03 P90 to last season's 4.34).

But that is largely because his focus appears to be on other areas; namely, making more tackles (a stat that has steadily progressed to 2.17 P90 from 1.13 in his first season at Old Trafford) and clearances (up to 2.36 P90 from last season's 0.97).

Pogba hasn't sacrificed all of his flair, of course, his 2.74 attempted dribbles P90 puts him close to his overall United average of 3.04.

However, he is clearly becoming more selective over the moments in which he expresses himself and showing the sort of discipline that could make him indispensable to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Anfield awaits

Previously, Pogba's performance at Anfield this Sunday would have been judged on his influence in the final third for Manchester United.

But, in recent weeks, the Frenchman has shown he can be a key man for the Premier League leaders in a completely different way.

And this transformation may even have enhanced Solskjaer's side's chances of getting a vital result at the home of their bitter rivals this weekend.

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