Paul Pogba came on to make an impact for United against BrightonManchester United’s players might have been looking to the technical area for solutions to their poor first-half performance against Brighton, but 25 yards down the touchline Paul Pogba was doing a bit of freelance coaching to try and fix the issues.
This was a vital three points for United but it didn’t look likely in a first 45 minutes in which they were comprehensively outplayed by the Seagulls and once again lost the midfield battle.
Fixing the centre of the pitch is proving as difficult for Ralf Rangnick as it was for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and when the interim manager signalled for United to shift into a 4-2-3-1 midway through the first half, with Scott McTominay and Fred as a double pivot, it felt like stepping back in time.United’s midfield had given up plenty of space in a 4-3-3 so there might have been some sense in the switch, but the issues were less to do with structure and more to do with quality.
For Fred, this was one of those games where his passing range makes you think he will never be the answer to these problems. The Brazilian deserves to be cut some slack – this was his first game back after suffering from Covid – and he was playing well in January, but time and again he coughed up possession with wayward passes.
One simple short pass in the first half was so far away from a teammate there was probably a United shirt in the crowd that was closer to it.
For all that he offers in terms of pressing, Fred’s passing has to improve if he’s going to be a fulcrum in United’s midfield when they finally rouse themselves for a title challenge.
So having spent some of the first half trying to tell his colleagues to close the spaces between midfield and attack, Pogba came on to try and sort it out on the pitch for the final 17 minutes.
The reaction of what had been a pretty fractious Old Trafford crowd spoke volumes. Patience is evidently wearing thin at what has been a dreadful season and there were ironic cheers when Marcus Rashford was subbed against Southampton, a reaction repeated when Fred’s number flashed up on the board of fourth official Kevin Friend. Pogba’s introduction was greeted by cheers.It was a sign that United’s fans want this midfield to become more progressive, for better and, occasionally, worse.
Within a couple of minutes Pogba was having a shot blocked from the edge of the area.In injury time he showed the quick thinking that can so often be a part of his game.
When Alexis Mac Allister fell on the ball and conceded a free-kick for handling it the game was done, but Pogba saw the space United had to play in and immediately released Bruno Fernandes into it.From there the Portuguese playmaker surged towards Robert Sanchez’s goal and finished coolly.
It was a much-needed confidence boost for a player who has missed chances recently.It was also Pogba’s eighth assist of the Premier League, but his first since August.
Since returning from three months out injured against Middlesbrough he has looked immediately back to his best, although he did tire against Southampton on Saturday.
As he walked off Pogba handed his shirt to a young fan in the Stretford End, the souvenir of a lifetime, and as the last player off the pitch he received a huge roar from the Red Army supporters above the tunnel.
This is a player likely to leave the club on a free transfer for the second time in a matter of months, but at the moment his performance levels are as high as anyone at the club and this reaction showed the supporters certainly feel he is part of United’s best midfield three at the moment.