Pogba Changes Dynamic for Man United vs. Tottenham in Long-Awaited Return

Paul Pogba hadn't played since Boxing Day, and his performance off the bench gave Man United the spark it needed in a draw vs. Tottenham.
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In the end, it was about Paul Pogba, as the narrative had demanded it should be. 

Pogba had started just five games for Manchester United this season, come off the bench in two and hadn't played since Boxing Day, but his introduction with 28 minutes to go changed the dynamic of a game that Tottenham had seemed to be controlling. He won the 81st-minute penalty that earned Man United an equalizer in Friday's 1-1 draw and kept the club in fifth place, four points clear of Spurs–although Chelsea, with a game in hand, could go five points clear in fourth if it wins at Aston Villa on Sunday.

One of the oddities of the Premier League's shutdown has been how excuses have fallen away. As Tottenham’s form disintegrated in February into a run of six games without a win, Jose Mourinho could point to the fact he had taken over in midseason and not had time to instill his ideas, not to mention the injuries to Harry Kane, Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min. All three are back, though while the 100-day break between games is far longer than a usual preseason, it's true that clubs were unable to train for much of that.

United, meanwhile, had finally rediscovered some form before shutdown, going unbeaten in 11 in all competitions, despite injuries to Pogba and Marcus Rashford. Both were available, although Pogba was left on the bench, denying observers the chance to see him play with Bruno Fernandes from the start. The two did play together in a friendly at West Brom, and there was evidence of an understanding, but United lost that game.

Paul Pogba returned for Manchester United

But more generally, for both sides, there is the sense of this nine-game last portion of the season being not just about the race for Champions League qualification, but also about answering questions about the capabilities of both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mourinho. Is Solskjaer actually good enough to lead a club of United’s stature? And is Mourinho a busted flush? (Although given the uncertain economics of modern football, the cost of paying off his contract may be beyond Tottenham).

What was notable early on was how little counter-pressing there was, both sides reacting to the loss of possession by dropping back and trying to reset rather than looking to regain the ball straightaway. That, presumably, was a matter of fitness rather than anything else, teams playing within themselves, aware both of a lack of match-sharpness and the need to conserve energy ahead of a ferocious schedule.

United just seemed to be taking control, with Rashford drawing a sharp save from Hugo Lloris, when there was a moment of classic Mourinho. Other than a couple of occasions when Erik Lamela could have released Son, Tottenham had offered nothing going forward when Luke Shaw, who probably had time to take the ball down, headed away a Lloris clearance and then mystifyingly advanced, as though assuming Rashford would claim it. As it was, Serge Aurier got there first, the ball was returned, Steven Bergwijn ran on, swept far too easily by Harry Maguire and lashed a shot on goal.

Even on a wet surface, David De Gea should have saved it, but the ball flew into the roof of the net off his glove. 

He did make a useful save from a Son header a few minutes later, but it was another incident to make those days when De Gea was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world seem like a very long time ago. But it wasn’t just about the Spaniard: the goal was the result of a more general laxity.

Pogba was introduced, along with Mason Greenwood, after 62 minutes, and immediately a mounting United surge had greater urgency. Twice chances were carved out for Anthony Martial, the second of then drawing a stunning reaction save from Lloris. 

But as Spurs flooded midfield, the thought began to grow that this might be the first properly Mourinho performance since he arrived at the club, a fifth clean sheet of the season and one rooted not in desperate clinging on but in organization.

Pogba, who completed 17 of his 18 passes, including all three long ball attempts, had his say in that, though. A moment of skill on the right side of the box from the Frenchman befuddled Eric Dier, who clumsily brought him down for a penalty. Bruno Fernandes, who is yet to experience defeat as a United player, converted the spot kick.

And so the questions remained unanswered. Tottenham still looks like a work in progress–Kane, in particular, looked off the pace as he often does after layoffs–while United will relish the potential shown by the Pogba-Fernandes axis and a point salvaged after a largely disappointing first hour.