Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping that Paris can act as a springboard once more as Manchester United claimed another unlikely win at the Parc des Princes.
Two-and-a-half years ago Marcus Rashford’s late penalty sent United through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
This time, Rashford’s late strike got United’s return to the top table of European football off to the perfect start on Tuesday night.
It was an evening to crown a couple of days that have been United’s most encouraging of the new season, coming hot on the heels of the 4-1 win at Newcastle.
United have been incisive, full of purpose and much more robust in two games that have seen them score six goals and banish the memory of the truly shocking 6-1 humiliation that was handed to them by Tottenham at Old Trafford.
Harry Maguire was quick to brush off talk of a crisis at the weekend, with the new campaign only four games old. But the negativity was swirling around the club and its manager after two defeats at home and a disastrous transfer window that ended in the deadline-day acquisition of 33-year-old Edinson Cavani.
So what has Solskjaer done to so quickly turn the mood around? The back three worked wonders in Paris on Tuesday night, but the most notable fix has come in midfield, where Paul Pogba has been conspicuous by his absence in the last two games.
After a slow start to the season and a truly dismal performance in that shocking defeat by Spurs, United’s £89million man has been Solskjaer’s fall guy.
United were wide open against Jose Mourinho’s side earlier this month, with Nemanja Matic the only shield in midfield. Pogba lined up alongside Bruno Fernandes, behind a front three of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. They were ripped apart as Son Heung-min and Harry Kane ran riot.
Bruno Fernandes made way at half-time that day with United already 4-1 down and down to 10 men after Martial’s red card. Pogba stayed on and gave away a penalty with an awful tackle on Ben Davies, to cap a miserable afternoon.
The much-maligned duo – Scott McTominay and Fred – have been restored to act as the two deep-lying midfielders, with Fernandes in place higher up the pitch. An extra body acting with some defensive responsibility has made United a much tougher proposition.
That it is Pogba who has had to make way to force through this positive change for United, says as much about the Frenchman as it does others in the United side. The Pogba that spearheaded the early days of the Solskjaer revolution has been missing in action for some time.
Fernandes was surprised to be handed the captaincy in Paris, but it was testament to the leadership he has displayed since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon in January. He is not just the creator-in-chief on the pitch, but he exudes the leadership qualities that United have been sorely lacking for years. He was meant to complement and work in tandem with Pogba, instead he has usurped him and is starting to have a greater influence over the culture of this United side.
He takes ownership, demands high standards of his team-mates, and most importantly of all, delivers when it matters.
He has become Solskjaer’s main man on the pitch, showcased by his return of 16 goals in 28 games. United fans could not hide their excitement at the prospect of Pogba and Fernandes lining up together when Project Restart got underway in June.
United were irresistible going forward for patches of the return, and Solskjaer named the same XI in five consecutive games. The lack of rotation caught up with United eventually as they limped out in the semi-finals of the Europa League.
A lack of options on the bench made United predictable. If you could stop Solskjaer’s first choice lineup, there was little those in reserve could do to change that.
Pogba has now become that impact substitute that many felt Solskjaer lacked last season. Donny van de Beek may well come to represent a trusted option, but he is still bedding in at the club.
For now it falls to Pogba, and he proved crucial in turning the tide of these two wins over Newcastle and PSG.
United were heading towards a dispiriting draw at St James’ Park on Saturday night before they found three late goals. Pogba was introduced in the 69th minute and helped to turn the screw accordingly.
With United pegged back by Martial’s own goal in Paris this week, Pogba was introduced to wrest back the initiative. It was his pass that set up Rashford’s 87th minute winner.
Using their £89m midfielder as an impact substitute may not be the best of resources, but for now it is bringing results. Pogba has been far from his best for the last 12 months, his 2019-20 season was wrecked by injury, and getting him to play his way back into a semblance of form with cameo appearances may well be no bad thing.
Last week United triggered his 12-month contract extension to tie him up for an extra season until 2022. It means Pogba cannot leave as a free agent next summer or talk to foreign clubs in January, having once again described the prospect of playing for Real Madrid as ‘a dream’ on international duty.
It protects his value, and ensures that if he does return to form that United can get some bang for their buck when he does eventually leave.
On the pitch Solskjaer has found a formula that works for now, but the question remains – will he react quick enough next time, when it ultimately gets found out? That question will not only define his third season in charge, but his entire Old Trafford reign.
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