For two full months, there was a Paul Pogba-sized hole in Manchester United. Not just in Manchester United’s midfield. Not just when the Red Devils had the ball, or when they didn’t. In every facet of their game.
Pogba, who had suffered a hamstring injury in the Champions League against Basel back in September, finally returned to the United lineup on Saturday. And he immediately reminded United fans what they had been missing.
United wasn’t perfect in a 4-1 win over Newcastle. It wasn’t on Man City’s level. It wasn’t even at its own best. And neither, frankly, was Pogba.
But United and Pogba were dynamic. It and he were enterprising. They were refreshing. Together, they were so many things that United hadn’t been when Pogba was out.
Not all of the change was due to Pogba, and not all of United’s problems are fixed. But the Frenchman put on a display that showed just how valuable he is. He patrolled midfield, and allowed United’s front four to do their thing. He danced on the right wing, and provided Anthony Martial with the home side’s equalizer:
But the whole allure of Pogba is his multi-dimensionality. He performs his supplementary duties – all kinds of them. He also spurs a team forward on his own.
With the match still in the balance at 2-1 early in the second half, United broke down the right. Romelu Lukaku had split out wide, and led the counter. Marcus Rashford broke into a full sprint to give Lukaku an option in the penalty box, and Lukaku picked out his running mate.
But right behind Rashford was Pogba. He, too, was in full flight. He made up even more ground from his midfield position. He was the reason United outnumbered Newcastle in the box, and the reason the hosts were able to double their lead:
United had looked shaky early. Phil Jones had been injured on England duty, and Eric Bailly injured in training before the Newcastle showdown. That left Jose Mourinho no choice but to start Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof.
The latter, who was at fault in a 2-1 loss at Huddersfield last month, erred again in the first half, and United found itself behind. DeAndre Yedlin made a fantastic bursting run down the right. His pulled-back cross reached Dwight Gayle – thanks to Lindelof’s slip – and Gayle put Newcastle ahead.
Old Trafford was silent and unimpressed. Only the visiting Geordies filled one corner with noise. Newcastle had come to play.
But United grew into the game. Martial’s header drew them level. Ashley Young found Smalling with a looping cross to give United the lead in first-half stoppage time.
Isaac Hayden nearly equalized, but in the second half, there was only ever going to be one winner. After Pogba’s goal, there was no doubt.
Pogba lasted 70 minutes. Almost immediately after his exit – to a relieved round of applause from the Old Trafford faithful – Lukaku banged in United’s fourth, and his first goal for his club since September.
Mourinho also handed a season debut to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The mercurial Swede had been out since last April after tearing his ACL in a Europa League knockout round match. But he re-signed with United in August, intent on a return, likely once calendars flipped to 2018.
Ibrahimovic beat that timetable – of course he did – and was named on the bench Saturday. He entered for Martial, and Lukaku played off the right for the last 13 minutes.
But Ibrahimovic remains a Plan B. It was Pogba’s return that was so crucial. United dropped eight points in seven Premier League games without him. That, right now, is the difference between United and City at the top of the table.
The Red Devils still have a ways to go to catch their neighbors. But with the blue half of Manchester now dealing with injury issues of its own – early reports suggest John Stones could miss six weeks – United has a chance to sustain a run and get back in the title race.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.