ANALYSIS: Pogba ball progression enlivens predictable Prem opener

Alan O’Brien 

New season, same old Manchester United. By presiding over another expected-goals defying victory, José Mourinho picked up right where he left off. But luckily for him, Claude Puel’s Leicester City haven’t changed much either.

MUNLEI

James Maddison was supposed to add much-needed guile to Puel’s midfield. Bereft of central craft last season, the Foxes leaned on the crossing crutch all too often; Leicester were the fourth most frequent crossers, but the fifth most inept at completing them.

A revelation at Norwich City, Maddison will offer final-third variety in time. But Mourinho’s customary midfield man-marking rendered the 21-year-old’s debut a disappointment. Leicester, therefore, reverted to type and completed only two of a whopping 28 attempted crosses.

The comparisons with Puel’s underwhelming debut campaign didn’t end there either. The Frenchman persisted with his preference for attacking down the left, with Ben Chilwell leading the charge. Chilwell regularly escaped Juan Mata’s clutches to enter the final third. But, although the full-back’s overlaps allowed Demarai Gray to cut inside, his final actions were poor.

Flank failings

A criticism that goes double for Gray. Despite dribbling Matteo Darmian almost at will, the winger proved typically wasteful in the final third. Gray converted 35 appearances into just three goals and one assist last time out — nowhere near good enough. No wonder 18 of those appearances were from the bench; the more productive Marc Albrighton usually got the nod instead.

Gray, in truth, looks more suited to a wider role on the right, where he can use his frightening pace to run in behind. Puel could use a bit of that, as there remains a real lack of depth to this Leicester attack. Only Kelechi Iheanacho was really minded to make the United defence run towards their own goal here.

Significantly diminished in the wake of Riyad Mahrez’s departure, Leicester’s right flank was ripe for United’s picking. And a lot of that had to do with the manner in which Puel set it up. The French manager plumped for two right-backs, fielding ex-Nice charge Ricardo ahead of midfielder-by-trade Daniel Amartey.

To say that Puel’s conservatism backfired would be an understatement. Amartey needlessly conceded a penalty inside two minutes. And despite his international pedigree, Ricardo neglected to track Shaw in the lead-up; or at any other point for that matter. His second-half replacement, the poor man’s Mahrez more commonly known as Rachid Ghezzal, fared little better in that regard either.

Pogba

Captain for the day, Pogba scored the penalty and started the move that won it, too — with a perfectly fizzed vertical pass. This was the Pogba of France; the disciplined, ball-progressing domineer that led his country to World Cup glory. And, although he lost Maddison for Leicester’s only big first-half chance, the 25-year-old would have been a much worthier winner of Jamie Carragher’s man of the match award. Instead, that accolade was garnered by Shaw, whose overcovering allowed Ricardo to tee up Maddison in the first place.

At this summer’s World Cup, no player gained more ground for his side — either by passing or dribbling — than Pogba. The midfielder ensured that the night’s plus ca change theme extended to him, too; topping the dribbling charts, and playing pinpoint long, vertical passes along the ground whenever possible.

Pogba, like the impressive debutant Fred, also proved adept at evading Puel’s vigorous midfield press. The league’s top tackler throughout the last campaign, Wilfried Ndidi did rob Pogba thrice in the opening quarter. But, more often than not, both United number eights withstood the attentions of the Nigerian and his partner Adrien Silva. In fact, that’s how the build-up to United’s second goal started; Pogba swatting away pressure from substitute Vicente Iborra.

Central midfield wasn’t a problem for United, then: Pogba ran the show, Fred hoovered up ball recoveries, and the recently repurposed Andreas Pereira nullified Maddison. And there were few issues at centre-back either, where Victor Lindelof commanded his penalty area and Eric Bailly covered brilliantly in behind Darmian. But in the final third, United proved just as ponderous as Leicester; more so, arguably.

Ponderous

Again it was a question of depth, as both Mata and Alexis Sanchez assumed number-10 positions, and only Marcus Rashford sought to occasionally probe in behind. Mata’s continued deployment on the right flank is a particular headscratcher. Mourinho speaks about the Spaniard providing a “point of contact” with midfield. And yet this United system hardly prioritises possession retention.

Handing Mata a start here, without Valencia to facilitate him on the overlap, was even more baffling. With the one-paced Darmian too frightened by Gray to advance, United had absolutely nothing going for them on the right of the pitch. Normally quite balanced, Mourinho’s attack unsurprisingly funneled 52% of its efforts down the left on Friday night.

Sanchez, who stubbornly refuses to assume second-striker positions, was particularly wasteful. A plethora of overly ambitious final passes proved beyond the Chilean, allowing Leicester’s bedraggled defensive unit to regroup. The Foxes conceded 51 goals last season and, on the basis of this game, it’s easy to see why. Centre-backs Harry Maguire and Wes Morgan continually left their line to put out fires unquenched by their outmanned midfield. A better side than United would have taken full advantage.

Conclusion

Yet as it turned out, United’s only big chance arrived courtesy of a Ricardo error; the Portuguese defender failing to deal with a Lindelof long ball. Romelu Lukaku missed the resultant one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel, who shared culpability with both Ricardo and Ghezzal for Shaw’s soft winner. Still, at least Ricardo redeemed himself upon switching to right-back by creating two late chances for Jamie Vardy.

Shaw failed to close either cross down, Darmian was out of position for the first, and Bailly blotted his copybook by letting the second set up Vardy’s consolation goal. Such apparent complacency will not please their famously grouchy gaffer. But, unless his incredible luck continues to defy logic and reason, Mourinho has much bigger problems coming down the tracks. Pogba, at least, is very much not one of them.

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