It was hardly a start befitting of the most expensive footballer in the world. Within a matter of seconds, Paul Pogba controlled the ball on his thigh before swinging a wayward boot in a vain attempt at a pass to a nearby teammate. Southampton capitalised to launch a counter-attack, but nothing came of it.
The only thing the Frenchman would have been dabbing was the sweat from his brow.
He could be forgiven for feeling slightly nervous, of course; this was his homecoming, his grand reveal, his first start for the club he left four years ago. An uber-talented boy departed Old Trafford in his quest for first-team opportunities in 2012; by 2016 he had returned a man, and a man with a point to prove, no less.
Prove it he did, and then some. Ignore the first 15 seconds and this was an excellent debut for an individual who cost £89.3million. Such a fee raised eyebrows – ‘is he really worth the fee?’ – but if Jose Mourinho, or anyone else at Manchester United for that matter, are questioned over the transfer, they should present Friday evening’s game as Exhibit A.
The crisp passes; the timely tackles; the insouciant displays of strength and power; the roulettes. Mourinho demanded a more intense home atmosphere in the build-up to the game, and Pogba provided the fuel for that particular fire. The perfect showman was as pragmatic and efficient as he was effervescent, enjoying more touches (103) and completing more passes (71) than any of his teammates. United impressed against Bournemouth, but there was a missing ingredient; Pogba is the most expensive cherry – but a wholly necessary one – atop a promising cake.
Even Mourinho must have been surprised. The manager promised that his new arrival would play “some minutes” against Southampton, but the chances of him starting were slim. But come 90 minutes, the Frenchman showed no signs of abating. While some managers opted to rest players who played in the latter stages of Euro 2016, Pogba gave his manager no choice but to keep him on the pitch. The 23-year-old personifies the typical Mourinho team: Strong, powerful, fast, unrelenting.
But even the world’s most expensive player had to share a stage. This was Paul Pogba’s second debut; this was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s home bow. And just as the Frenchman thrived under the spotlight, so did Old Trafford’s new God. A thumping header and a confident penalty in another unselfish performance ensured his share of the headlines. The 23-year-old and the 34-year-old, the future of football and the man consigned by many (ahem…) to its past, combining to showcase United’s present.
While there can be no doubt over the two main protagonists, the supporting cast simply cannot be ignored. Pogba directed proceedings from midfield and Ibrahimovic led the forward line like only he can, but the victory – and United’s continued progress this season – would be impossible without three individuals who had seemingly been blacklisted.
When Mourinho was finally announced as manager in May, thoughts were spared for Juan Mata. The Spaniard had found life difficult under the Portuguese at Chelsea, and he was eventually sold. Fears were also expressed for Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind. The former teachers’ pets were expected to be sent to detention under the new principal. They represented the failings of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, not the era of success Mourinho promised to provide. Yet it was this trio of players who laid the groundwork for a second victory.
No player on the pitch made more key passes than Mata (two), and only two United player completed more passes (41). After impressing against Bournemouth, he continues to state his case, and no sight pleased the Old Trafford crowd more than the player embracing his manager upon his second-half substitution.
Fellaini (46) was one of the two individuals to make more passes, and no player made more tackles than the Belgian (two). His pass accuracy in the first half (95.5%) was the base from which United built. Aimless under Moyes and hopeless under Van Gaal, Mourinho has instilled a new vigour into the midfielder.
But it is the emergence of Blind as one of his new manager’s most trusted lieutenants which is most pleasantly surprising. When one thinks of a Mourinho centre-half, images of John Terry, of Ricardo Carvalho, of Pepe come to mind – strong, powerful defenders who will throw their body on the line. Blind is the complete antithesis, a midfielder under 6ft who is unlikely to engage in physical battles. And yet the Dutchman has been wonderful so far this season, forming an effective partnership with Eric Bailly. Blind is the football brain; his central-defensive partner is the delightfully batsh*t brawn. Chris Smalling faces a battle to regain his place; it is difficult to see him winning any time soon.
“The club needs to change, to go again in a different direction,” Mourinho said before the game. Many would have expected this to mean a fresh start, that the new director would bring in his own actors. Instead, the existing cast are providing the perfect foil for the two new headliners.