When Paul Pogba signed for Manchester United in a then-world record £89.1 million transfer from Juventus in Aug. 2016, it was for nights like this at Burnley. Nights when the French midfielder made a match-winning contribution in a big game which resulted in the club moving to the top of the Premier League table.
Unfortunately for United and Pogba, those moments have come all too infrequently. But finally, after so many years of disappointments, United are now back at the top of the pile and their most high-profile, and frustrating, player was the man who made it happen.
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Pogba’s 71st-minute goal at Turf Moor — a deflected volley from a Marcus Rashford cross — was enough to seal a 1-0 victory for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team, but the significance of the strike was far greater than merely the points it secured. The win extended United’s unbeaten run away from home in the Premier League to 15 games — a run which stretches back to last January’s 2-0 defeat at Liverpool — and ensured they will return to Anfield this Sunday as league leaders, with a three-point lead over Jurgen Klopp’s reigning champions.
“We know we’re going to the champions,” Solskjaer said. “They’ve had an unbelievable three seasons, so we’re ready for it.
“But we’re ready and we’re excited, we’re hungry for it and it’s a test of character and quality again. We’re in a good position going into it.”
Just twelve months ago, United trailed Liverpool by 27 points when they made the short trip to Anfield. Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Burnley completed an incredible 33-point swing in United’s favour in the time since. Another win at the weekend will take United six points clear of their traditional rivals and confirm, if it were needed, that Solskjaer’s team are firmly in the hunt for the title.
United haven’t been top at this stage of the season since they last won the league in 2012-13. Liverpool, and Manchester City, arguably still have greater depth and pedigree than Solskjaer’s team, but the win at Burnley underlined United’s durability and readiness to fight for a 21st league title.
Paul Pogba hasn’t scored too many decisive goals since returning to Old Trafford, but his winner against Burnley on Tuesday could prove crucial in Man United’s title challenge. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Since losing to Arsenal at the beginning of November, United have collected 29 points from a possible 33 and they are becoming more convincing as a defensive unit with every game; this result was United’s first clean sheet away from home in the league this season. But against a dogged Burnley team determined to make it tough for Solskjaer’s side, United kept their patience and chiselled away until Pogba broke the deadlock in the closing stages.
By that point, United should already have been a goal ahead, with a first-half header by Harry Maguire having been disallowed for an apparent push on defender Erik Pieters. Referee Kevin Friend’s decision wasn’t reviewed by VAR, so United were left to complain about harshly being denied what would have been a brilliantly-taken opener.
VAR had already intervened in a confusing, but ultimately correct, manner earlier in the game, with United defender Luke Shaw ultimately ending up with a yellow card for a foul on Johann Gudmundsson. Shaw’s foul nullified a subsequent incident at the other end of the pitch, when Robbie Brady was booked for a foul on Edinson Cavani which was reviewed by VAR as a possible red card offense for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity. But because the Shaw incident came first, Brady was let off the hook.
As United dominated possession but failed to find a breakthrough, the VAR controversies looked set to be the major talking point of the game, but Pogba’s goal changed the narrative to one of United getting the job done, despite VAR and Burnley’s defensive mindset.
Since his agent, Mino Raiola, claimed last month that Pogba wanted to leave United, the 27-year-old has found his form and is now playing some of his best football since rejoining the club from Juve four-and-a-half years ago. Whether that is a coincidence or that Raiola’s words gave Pogba a sense of freedom, United won’t really mind if it results in the player continuing to make a difference as he did at Burnley.
Pogba has now scored 27 Premier League goals for United, but this was only the third time one of them has decided a game where the margin has been one goal. That is the kind of influence a player of Pogba’s stature and reputation should have on a much more consistent basis. If this is the start of something along those lines, it could be the difference between United being title challengers and a team that can actually go and win it.
Solskjaer knows precisely the difference Pogba can make.
“I’ve always said Paul is a big player for us,” Solskjaer said. “He’s a good character in the dressing room, he’s someone the lads look to, he’s a world champion. We’re seeing the best of Paul at the moment.”
But the challenge now, for United and Pogba, is to build on this win and show that they are serious about winning the title. While United have the talent, questions remain over whether they have the depth. They delivered at Burnley, though, and did what they had to do.
“We knew if we win we would be top of the league when we play Liverpool,” Pogba said. “We have to keep calm, now it is the big moment. We will see what is going to happen.
“It will be a beautiful game for everyone. A big game coming up so let’s get ready for it.”