MANCHESTER — Every time he touched the ball Old Trafford descended into a hushed expectancy.
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Paul Pogba, 23, played the entire 90 minutes as Manchester United beat Southampton 2-0 on Friday night and intermittently he showed glimpses of the star quality which persuaded the Red Devils to make him the most expensive player in the world.
He seemed to tower above Southampton’s midfielders, striding forward powerfully time and time again. For someone who didn’t play a single second during preseason, Pogba only faded slightly in the final 10 minutes.
Pogba’s first touch was to give the ball away with a miskick and let Saints launch a counter-attack. It got better. Much better.
Driving forward from a position on the inside left flank in central midfield, Pogba drilled a shot on goal which Fraser Forster saved easily. He then clipped a delicate ball into Juan Mata who flicked it on to Zlatan Ibrahimovic to scissor kick an effort just over. When Ibrahimovic headed home his first goal, Pogba was just in front of him, inches away from connecting himself. In the second half he headed just over from eight-yards out, slammed another effort wide late on which Zlatan scolded him for, somewhat jokingly, after the game as he claimed Pogba should’ve squared the ball to him for his hat trick.
The man himself was happy to “home” following his sensational four-year stint at Juventus after he left United as a teenager. Since he left United have been on a downward spiral, failing to win the Premier League in the last three seasons. For the 20-time champions of England, they’re craving to get back to winning ways.
“It’s a great feeling. I was relaxed, didn’t have nerves and played my game. I came here to win, that is what I always wanted. It’s a top club,” Pogba told reporters afterwards. “The first ball, I lost it, but got used to it. After that I felt better, touched the ball and played with the team. We dream big. United are a big club. I know we will do big things this season.”
With Zlatan, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and many other fine attacking talents around, Pogba may not always get the headlines but it seems as though he can knit this team together and can obliterate opponents with his surging runs. The fact that he has Martial, Zlatan and others to link with attack means he has all the moving pieces around him to succeed.
On the ball he oozed class as he powerfully held off Saints defenders with one arm and caressed the ball with his feet. He has all the tools to be United’s savior in a new era under Jose Mourinho. He is, in many ways, a complete player with no real weakness.
Speaking after the game United’s Portuguese manager was hugely complimentary of his $117 million man.
“He was fantastic,” Mourinho said of Pogba. “His first action was bad, he loses an easy ball and gives a counter-attack and a free kick to the opponent. You can see even more the ego, the personality, he is so comfortable under that skin of a star. He is so confident in the way he plays. For 10 days work, first match of the season, not even 10 minutes of a friendly, I think he played phenomenal.”
The thing about this Pogba performance was that it felt like he played with the handbrake on. At times he seemed to hold back from going full-throttle but left enough flashes of brilliance dangling in front of the faces of fans to keep them salivating. Pogba’s name seemed to be plastered on replica shirts outside one in every three or so fans outside Old Trafford on Friday.
United’s new no. 6 may have already gone a long way to paying back his extortionate transfer fee in shirt sales alone but in his promising second debut for United, the French international proved that all the bluster and analysis around him didn’t impact him. He just went out there and played. Just like he always has done and always will. That’s Pogba at his best.
His manager joked that he “didn’t know what position” Pogba played in and the only directions he gave him was to play. Unlike this summer at EURO 2016 when France’s manager Didier Deschamps asked him to play in a deeper, more disciplined role, Mourinho knows Pogba’s talent is best used if he’s allowed to roam free.
That was Mourinho’s biggest indicator yet that this team will be built around Pogba and he believes he can handle the pressure.
“We have to build a certain organization around but he has to play free,” Mourinho said. “For a player to play with the freedom he has. We have to build a certain organization around him. The moment we lose the ball we have to be protected. The moment he starts his movement forward, even when the team is protected in the first phase, we need to bring other players to the first phase. He has to play with freedom. Of course last 10 minutes 2-0, now more tactical organization but this is the kind of guy who has to play free. I think he bought a lot to the team. So good.”
Pogba was “so good” and the overwhelming sense from his debut is there’s still plenty more to come. He hugged fans in the Stretford End as he walked off the pitch and was the last United player out there, soaking up the atmosphere at Old Trafford on a special night under the lights.
“It was great. My debut and we won so I am very happy for that,” Pogba added. “I am very happy for the team. I came back home. I hope to continue like this and get better and keep winning.”