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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reserved special praise for Paul Pogba after his man of the match display as Manchester United beat Aston Villa to move level on points with Premier League leaders Liverpool.
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Solskjaer’s side started well as Anthony Martial gave them the lead but they were pegged back in the second half by a spirited Villa, however Pogba then won the penalty kick which saw Bruno Fernandes slot home the winner as the Red Devils are unbeaten in 10 games, winning eight of those.
Asked by Sky Sports about Pogba’s display, Solskjaer was full of praise for the Frenchman who suffered from injuries and contracting COVID-19 earlier this season.
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“He’s getting better and better. Fitter and fitter. I think he played well today. They are a physical side, loads of challenges and Paul’s one of these guys who can get hold of it for us,” Solskjaer said. “Maybe, not just Paul, but we were too keen on playing the killer pass because we know they are going to drop off and there were other spaces in-behind that we should have used.”
Pogba had a brilliant game off the left side of midfield, as he used flicks and tricks to get by Villa’s players and showed off his wide array of passes.
There has been a clear uptick in his displays since his agent Mino Raiola declared he wanted to leave the club and wouldn’t sign a new contract, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a future for him at United if he can fit into the team coming off the left.
Manchester United level on points with Liverpool
As for the hard-fought win which takes Man United level on points with Liverpool, Solskjaer shared his delight and believes his team are improving all the time.
“Don’t get me wrong I’m delighted with the three points and the performance, but there’s always stuff to improve on. Those extra two points are important,” Solskjaer said. “We’ve improved. I think the league and the season is going to be so tight. We’ve just got to keep working and improving as a team. Every time you win a game you take one step further. You’ve just got to accumulate the points. They all count the same.”
Solskjaer was asked about a huge game coming up at Liverpool on Jan. 17, but he brushed off a chance to hype up that clash between the bitter rivals.
“We’ve got a big game on Wednesday against City, I’m not even thinking [about playing Liverpool] yet,” Solskjaer laughed.
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Many have been laughing at Solskjaer for many months, but United are in fine form and are finding ways to get the best out of their best talents.
In this season, the most congested season both in terms of games to squeeze in and the standings being so tight, having that extra star quality in key moments will be pivotal.
Solskjaer knows his team are on the right path.
“Of course we are happy with what we are doing. We have shown we have improved a lot in a year. We lost to Arsenal away last new year’s day. We have improved immensely. We are getting fitter and fitter and stronger and stronger,” Solskjaer told the BBC. “These players have a great age. They are learning and are hungry to learn which is important. They come in every day with a hunger and desire to be the best on match day. They have been focused.”
There was a derby in 2015/16 when United and City faced each other and it was a drab affair but Neville opined that was a derby that showed the Premier League going back to some normality in big games. 62 months later, he was over the commentary talking about how poor City had played and the cagey nature of it all. Really and truly, the games weren’t too dissimilar to each other. There were some openings in the first half: McTominay at the back post after a flick and De Gea saving from Mahrez in the one time City managed to carve us open were the best chances for either side. The second half may have been kicked into gear had Rashford managed to stay onside and United got the penalty but the game carried on listlessly. The fact that each side ended with 2 shots on target each shows the excitement in this game was bereft and that was all due to two teams who feared what would happen if they were to commit and leave space for the other to attack into.
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The elimination from the Champions League was littered with agent talk as Mino Raiola activated the circus with his comments that Pogba wants to leave and do so in January. It was insane pressure to add onto a game that had enough of it as it is. As it came, Pogba sat on the bench as he watched his side go 2-0 down. He came on played well but we went further behind. In spite of it, his thirty minute cameo was well received. Whether he scored the second goal is up for debate but his general play was the best that it has been for a while. If not for the boot of Gulasci, he would have contributed to the own goal that would have seen us through. He came on and played in a double pivot alongside McTominay. Today, he played on the left of a four, a four that I will come onto later. But his general work again, was impressive. Often, the inroads we made in the City half that were threatening were courtesy of the work from the Frenchman. On the ball, as is usual on his better days, he was able to jinx past players like they weren’t there and as the game opened a little more in the second half, his ability to transition in carrying the ball showed more and more. He and Bruno switched several times in the second half, with us having a bit more joy when these switches occurred that put Pogba centrally. It was more his work off the ball that made it different to what we usually see. He worked back very well to double up on Mahrez or track runs that Walker made. He shuffled inwards to cut off passing lanes so that the City CBs would have to switch play rather than build play through the middle. Regularly, City would struggle because he came and sat in the half space, a position that Walker would regularly come into when City have built play in other games. It pushed him wider and made City a lot more predictable and rigid in their positioning. It’s not much but it’s honest work and it’s work that Pogba has been criticised for all too often.
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Flat Four Theory
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When the team sheet came out and the four central midfielders of the aforementioned Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Fred and Scott McTominay, many thought it would be a rehash of the diamond shape that was quickly abandoned vs Arsenal. But it was a flat four. It is something that we see a lot from Atletico Madrid down the years and as you would have it, it was exactly how we played it. Greenwood and Pogba played in false winger positions without the ball, with Bruno and Rashford providing the screen for the Man City midfield two. As much as the commentators were critical of Man City’s passing intensity, United’s shape played as much into this as anything. Guardiola has regularly struggled against Atletico and given that he is setting up in a more defensive shape, it played more into this nothing game. But in terms of United’s defensive shape, it is the best I have seen in a while. The ease with which we have been played through, throughout the years not just under Ole, has been a cause of concern. Today, it was mechanical. United used the wide areas to apply pressure on the ball and were compact from front to back. When they did go to press in City’s defensive third, it was done as a team rather than the usual Bruno one man show that we see get so easily played around. On the ball, it could have been a bit better. The full backs were better in possession today, particularly Wan Bissaka. Heavily involved in a move with McTominay, which if Bruno had weighted properly, would have had Greenwood bearing down on goal. There were other occasions as well where he played well out of the press, a moment in the second half where he found Pogba in space on his left foot being the highlight but the bar is probably in hell with his distributive prowess. It would be good to see us continue in this way, with perhaps Pogba moving inside and Martial coming in upfront. The likelihood of this however is low.