After the very wholesome and, well, very Arsenal scenes at the Brentford Community Stadium on Friday, a little bit of the other side of football with fans landed in Manchester for the resumption of a simmering and bitter rivalry.
Running scraps between Manchester United and Leeds United supporters in the city centre, including one clobbering another with a bin. The Leeds contingent not so politely enquiring over the identity of new signing Raphael Varane as he was paraded to the Old Trafford faithful, who then burst into a hearty rendition of, “We all hate Leeds scum!” inside 20 seconds.
Nature is healing.
Of course, novelty becoming normality with all its warts is something everyone can broadly get behind after the past 18 months. Ideally without WWE re-enactments using waste disposal facilities, but you play the cards you’re dealt.
Another familiar narrative as the masses returned to the Stretford End was Paul Pogba’s future in Manchester and how uneasily it sat. Once again, the France midfielder was reported to be keen on a move away from the club he re-joined for £89.3million in 2016 – a fee only overtaken as a British record by Jack Grealish’s switch to Manchester City earlier this month. Once again, he appears to be going nowhere.
Lionel Messi’s arrival means there is no longer enough elasticity in the Paris Saint-Germain books to bring Pogba to the French capital, leaving him to make the best of a curious status within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad.
Jadon Sancho is the new headline signing and Bruno Fernandes’ bottomless well of goals and assists has led some to idly question whether Pogba would be missed that much.
But, aside from both being attacking midfielders, they are elite players of different and contrasting qualities. When those talents mesh as they did in United’s riotous 5-1 win over their foes from the other side of the Pennines, they suggest the most obvious route to quenching a four-season trophy drought.
The difference in approach was highlighted by two first-half one on ones, with such openings always on the agenda due to a porous Leeds midfield that badly missed Kalvin Phillips at its base.
In the 27th minute, after Mason Greenwood snaffled a loose ball in the centre circle, Pogba was sent clear. His stepover worked an angle to beat countryman IIlan Meslier in the Leeds goal and he clipped a left-footed finish just wide.
Had it gone in, it would have been a beautiful finish, every bit as attractive as the throughball with which Pogba released Fernandes three minutes later. The Portugal star mashed a shot towards goal that bounced off Meslier and spun in. Fernandes lacks Pogba’s aesthetics but he gets things done and relentlessly so.
Luke Ayling’s blistering 48th-minute equaliser gave us a more agreeable instance of top bins and could have been a pivot point in the contest. Well, it was. Just not the one you might have expected.
For once, there seemed to be little danger when Pogba collected possession inside the United half in the 52nd minute, but the pass with which he brought Ayling back down to earth and sent Greenwood scampering away to finish via the post was a piece of implausible perfection.
Fernandes made it 3-1, clumping a shot into a crowded goalmouth that Ayling cleared from behind the line. Not pretty, but no matter.
Pogba now had a hat-trick of assists and his partner in crime claimed the matchball as he thundered home Victor Lindelof’s raking pass. Beauty but of a more visceral kind than Pogba typically deals in.
Twenty minutes on from Ayling’s leveller, Fred made it 5-1 and Pogba had gorged himself to surpass his Premier League assists tally of three from 2020-21 in a single lunchtime.
He departed to a standing ovation as the new hero Sancho entered the fray alongside Anthony Martial. Once the England winger is up to full fitness and Marcus Rashford returns from shoulder surgery, it will be fascinating to see what configuration Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opts for.
Granting Pogba the roving role from the left flank that allowed him to decimate Leeds would leave a couple of high-profile wide attackers disgruntled most weeks.
There could be changes in formation, with Saturday’s 4-2-3-1 wheeled out as much by necessity as design. But Pogba’s six passes to Fernandes were more than he made to any United team-mate and look what that led to.
A deeper role for the Frenchman when the other attackers return would be the easy call, but why sever an alliance that looked utterly unplayable here? The start of Fernandes’ story at Old Trafford once looked like it might be the end of Pogba’s. They should be allowed the chance to script something far more compelling in tandem.
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