LONDON — Sir Alex Ferguson has often suggested that Manchester United like to do things the hard way, but this incarnation is taking things more literally than I’m sure even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would like.
United returned to the Premier League with a 2-1 win at Fulham on Wednesday. In doing so, they had to come back from a deficit and rely on Paul Pogba’s magic moment for the second time in a row. That means United have already picked up 21 points from uncompromising positions this season, more than half of their total of 40 points.
While the pattern of poor performances this season points to a deeper explanation, perhaps related to COVID, Solkshaer offered a clear reason why they struggled to win at Craven Cottage.
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Honestly, I don’t blame the players, he said after the game. Sometimes it takes a while to get started. In these circumstances, the environment we live in, the era of history we live in, is not easy. We stayed at the hotel all day. This morning we were looking for a place to exercise to cool our heads and feet. We couldn’t find him anywhere, obviously because of the VIDOC and the bubbles.
I think we need to see the reaction. It’s genius. I wouldn’t blame the players for starting a little slow at times. I think these are such strange and difficult times for everyone.
The good news is that they are still looking for a way to win. Sunday’s 0-0 draw with champions Liverpool, which featured a more cautious approach, remains the exception.
Pogba missed a great chance to win the game at Anfield, but he put in a great individual performance here to turn the situation around for the visitors. He showed excellent control to master the ball at height. He worked the ball with his left foot and made a wonderful flick into the opposite corner from 20 yards.
I hit the ball well, Pogba told BT Sport after the game. I didn’t expect it with my left foot, but if you don’t try, you don’t score. It was a great goal and a great win. It wasn’t my favorite goal, but it was still good.
I was really annoyed after the Liverpool game because I didn’t get a chance to score. Maybe I should have done better, but everything went wrong today. The most important thing was to win today. We did it both the hard way and the soft way.
United deserved to win because they controlled possession and created plenty of danger, but the way he finished was very different to when Ademola Lookman broke the offside trap, picked up a pass from Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and shot low to deceive David de Gea. United seemed to have stopped playing and waited for the offside flag, but the truth is they haven’t even started yet.
Paul Pogba made the difference for the second time in a week, his goal helping Manchester United to a win at Fulham. Getty
It was the seventh time they had fallen behind this season and after winning their last six games there were no signs of panic. However, much of the comeback was down to Fulham goalkeeper Alfonso Areola, who sent in a Bruno Fernandez cross that Edinson Cavani grabbed for his fifth goal for United.
Fernandez had hit the post moments earlier with a shot from the edge of the box into a corner, but it was United’s first sign of life. Then they took control.
Solskjaer made three changes from the Liverpool game with Eric Bailey, Mason Greenwood and Cavani. The most significant change, however, is the arrival of Pogba in central midfield alongside Fred. It may not be seen on television, but a sign of Pogba’s commitment these days was clear to the crowd at Craven Cottage: Pogba regularly addressed his teammates with passes and constantly offered himself as a position to get the ball out of the final four.
Although he plays in defence, Pogba made 56 passes in the opposing half – more than any other player on either team – for the second time in a week following the win over Burnley. Pogba’s form is taking some of the pressure off Fernandes at the moment, but the peripheral performances of Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood underline the importance of the Portuguese playmaker United maintaining his impressive play.
United have not always recovered from such a slow start, losing two games where they fell behind at Old Trafford and suffering some late scares here, with Gea scoring in the 15th minute. He made a good save against Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the second minute. Spin’s No.1 couldn’t stop Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header in injury time, which hit Bailey and went inches from the right post.
United remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League away from home and have now equalled the club record of 17 away games without defeat, originally set by Ferguson’s team who won the treble in 1999. Nobody can blame United for their determination, but in the race for the title with a big lead – United were the third team to take the top spot in the table behind Leicester City and Manchester City on Wednesday alone – they can’t keep feeling this kind of pressure and questioning themselves throughout the spring and beyond.