Perfect Pogba proves his point

Frenchman silences critics while thriving beside Fernandes as he leads title charge

Manchester United's Paul Pogba (far left) celebrating his winner with fellow midfielder Bruno Fernandes in their 2-1 Premier League win over Fulham on Wednesday. The victory meant that the Red Devils are back on top of the table, two points ahead of
Manchester United's Paul Pogba (left) celebrating his winner with fellow midfielder Bruno Fernandes in their 2-1 Premier League win over Fulham on Wednesday. The victory meant that the Red Devils are back on top of the table, two points ahead of Manchester City.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • Paul Pogba cannot play with Bruno Fernandes. That has been the line continually trotted out by pundits since Fernandes' move to Manchester United last January.

Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not be fully convinced the pair can line up alongside each other in midfield - Pogba started on the right wing against Liverpool last Sunday - but the French World Cup winner's recent displays prove that when he is in form, there are few better in the Premier League.

Pundit Rio Ferdinand made that assertion after seeing Pogba's blistering winner as his former team beat Fulham 2-1 on Wednesday to return to the top of the table, hours after being temporarily displaced by rivals Manchester City.

The 27-year-old formed the base of the visitors' midfield alongside Fred with Fernandes at its tip - a starting formation that Solskjaer used for the first time in the top flight this season.

But despite his deep-lying position, Pogba, who also scored the winner against Burnley last week, impressed at Craven Cottage.

He made more passes in the opposition half (56) than any other player while leading United in tackles (four), interceptions (three) and possession gained (nine) and his performance was capped by his first league goal on his weaker left foot from outside the box since January 2015.

Edinson Cavani had equalised after Ademola Lookman's early opener for the hosts and United's victory means they equalled their club record of 17 away league games without defeat set by the treble-winning side of 1999.

Pogba has come in for plenty of criticism over the past few seasons for his lack of effort at times while threats to leave the club issued by his agent Mino Raiola have not helped matters.

However, Ferdinand is delighted with how Pogba is helping United's title charge for the first time since 2012-13, Alex Ferguson's final season in charge.

"I don't think Ole completely trusts him in the centre of midfield with the pace that some sides counter with... but in this game they felt they would dominate and so he can allow him to do it," he told BT Sport.

"The big difference is that he is playing quick... the efficiency he is playing with is amazing. One of the best when he is in this form... he loves the game and wants to showcase his talent. If he's got the platform, the players around him that allow him to thrive, he can do it."

Former United midfielder Robbie Savage was equally impressed.

He said: "I think tonight has proven that he can play with Fernandes, but the big thing is, can he play as a 'six' in the bigger games with Fernandes as the '10'? I think he can, I think he's shown that tonight."

With Pogba knuckling down - he later insisted his position did not matter as "it is not only about me" - Solskjaer is sensing his team are hitting new heights with the term at its halfway point after 19 games played.

"We've done better in tighter games... That was a point we spoke about early on before the season had started, that we needed to stop getting draws and win more games," he said. "We've shown great improvement in mentality as well as physical robustness."

City remain their closest challengers and are two points behind on 38 points with a game in hand.

Pep Guardiola's side made it six league wins in a row after a hard-fought 2-0 win over Aston Villa at the Etihad on Wednesday.

It was a deserved win for City although their opener, scored by Bernardo Silva late on, was controversial. Rodri, coming back from an offside position, robbed Tyrone Mings before laying the ball off.

Villa boss Dean Smith was shown a red card for his vehement protests, with lkay Gundogan converting a spot kick in added time for City's second.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2021, with the headline 'Perfect Pogba proves his point'. Subscribe