Manchester United’s new €150m midfield axis could get them over the line
Perhaps United have their first genuinely world-class midfield pairing for a decade
Manchester United’s Paul Pogba in action against Spurs on Friday night. Photograph: PA
It was, you suspect, a move that Paul Pogba had been practising barefoot in his Cheshire front room for the last three months: tweaking, fine-tuning, waiting impatiently for the moment when he could unleash it on some poor unwitting mug of an opponent. And here, 10 minutes from the end of a taut and enthralling game, it was Eric Dier who found himself desperately lunging at thin air, giving away the penalty from which Bruno Fernandes earned Manchester United a deserved share of the points.
Pogba and Fernandes. Fernandes and Pogba. And Scott McTominay, of course, although you suspect he’ll struggle to share top billing. If not quite the most ambitious crossover event in history, then the entrance of Pogba as a substitute in the 63rd minute – joining the Portuguese international on the pitch in a competitive fixture for the first time – marked the point at which United fans got their first look at their new £136m (€150m) midfield axis. The early auguries, it has to be said, were good.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the four Premier League fixtures so far – and indeed the early evidence from Italy, Spain and Germany – is how little the pre-pandemic train of form and momentum appears to have been disrupted by the break. Or, perhaps, how quickly the existing storylines from the antediluvian 2019-20 season have managed to reassert themselves. Arsenal are still never more than two flicked headers away from a full-blown defensive meltdown. Norwich are still admirable but hopeless lightweights. Tottenham are still a team painfully short on confidence and seemingly incapable of putting a full 90 minutes together.
United, too, offered up little we didn’t already know about them. The back five still needs some major surgery in the summer. David de Gea’s meek effort at saving Steven Bergwijn’s first-half shot, collapsing to his left like an arthritic penguin, merely reinforced the impression of a career slowly regressing. The front three still feels like a work in progress. But the emergence of Fernandes and Pogba – perhaps United’s first genuinely world-class midfield pairing for a decade – is the real point of difference here, the shot in the arm that in a breathless nine-game sprint to the finish, an excruciatingly tight race for a Champions League spot, may just shimmy them over the line.
This is, remember, a United side who were riding a wave of optimism going into the break, with Fernandes as the skeleton key, the mystery ingredient in the chilli. Off the field, they have played an exemplary hand during the pandemic: season-ticket refunds, impressive sums donated to charities and food banks, compensation payments to casual match-day staff, waived loan fees. Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, has been busy saving the world one school meal at a time.
Still, it took both teams a while to get going. As with most of the games played since restart, the opening stages felt like something of a reconnaissance exercise for both teams: a process of getting to know themselves as much as getting to grips with the opposition. That’s probably a polite way of saying that neither of them was very much good. United, for all their strong recent form, still don’t quite look like a side with the confidence to play through oppositions. For Tottenham, an endemic lack of poise and confidence in possession had not, unsurprisingly, been ameliorated by 101 days without competitive football.
Érik Lamela was comfortably the most watchable player in that first half: spiky, combative, applying himself to United’s calves and ankles with the gusto of a man who has three months’ worth of fouling to catch up on. Sporting a new blond haircut and starting high up the pitch, Lamela was at the heart of most of what Spurs did well. Granted, he was also at the heart of most of what they did badly, but on the whole it was a cautiously encouraging night for the Argentinian, given he was probably relieved not to have injured himself while taking a knee at kick-off.
Spurs did feel like a meatier presence with their injured players restored, even if Harry Kane looked badly off the pace and Son Heung-min faded in the second half after a delightfully wispy first. The more structured the game, the better it suited Tottenham, and they even had chances to extend the first-half lead given to them by Bergwijn. But as it stretched and loosened in the second half, United began to look more threatening. Enter Pogba.
Almost instantly, United began to pose more of a threat. At times they have looked cussedly one-dimensional in attack, too reliant on quick counters and diagonal balls for Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James. With Pogba and Fernandes pulling the strings, Tottenham now had multiple threats to neuter. Dier gritted his teeth after a desperate challenge on Martial following some lip-licking link-play between Pogba and Fernandes. With no crowd noise in the stadium, we became painfully aware of just how much of the Tottenham bench’s tactical instruction seemed to consist of the word “away”. It felt less a marquee fixture in one of the world’s richest sporting leagues, more a grudge match between rival primary schools.
Ten minutes from time, Pogba’s dancing feet and Fernandes’s pinpoint kick deservedly hauled United level. In the dying minutes, the visitors might even have won it, VAR overturning a penalty given against Dier, the ball snatched out of Rashford’s hands just as he was preparing to take the kick. Honours even, then. But on this evidence, there was only one team you would rather be on the final stretch.