Stoke had never lost an away league game on a Monday night, but they had likely not seen a better passing performance from an opposition player than the one Paul Pogba produced, either. Two assists for the midfielder from Manchester United’s three goals and it would have been plenty more had his team-mates converted them.
Paul Lambert was at Old Trafford having been announced as Stoke’s new manager earlier in the day. He will realise just how much his work is cut out for him after witnessing the defending last night.
In the build-up to United’s opening goal in the ninth minute, Pogba was under so little pressure he had time to put the kettle on, make a cuppa in the middle of the pitch, before he flicked the ball out to Valencia on the right with the outside of his boot. The Ecuadorian cut back inside and lashed the ball into the far corner. It was possibly the first time he had ever used his left foot.
Pogba is beginning to more regularly play with the swagger and snap he developed at Juventus; successfully executing a flip-flop one moment, swiping away Stephen Ireland’s legs the next. He hit a 60-yard diagonal pass from inside his own half that could not have been better weighted for Jesse Lingard. It was like a golf shot played with a touch of back spin, perfectly executed at the end of a pro’s five or six minutes of preparation, only Pogba had a split second to pull the trigger.
Soon after Pogba provided again: playing a deft pass across the edge of Stoke’s penalty area with just the right weight, once more, for Anthony Martial to curl in first-time. Somehow he spotted Martial when the entirety of Stoke’s defence missed him and the assist was as good as the finish.
Continuing into the second half, Pogba picked out Martial a second time with a reverse pass in-between three Stoke defenders and only a slight mis-control from the forward allowed goalkeeper Jack Butland to pounce on the ball.
Then there was the curled in-swinging ball from wide left, that Lukaku was not expecting to find him, and the repeated step-overs to skip past two players before laying inside to Mata. And the chipped ball down the right into Marcus Rashford’s path. The performance was a passing masterclass; a highlights reel from a single game that should be shown to youngsters in Premier League academies far and wide.
The 72nd-minute third was started by Pogba, too, with a layoff inside United’s half, although Lingard drove up the field with the ball and Martial delivered the cutting pass into the box for Romelu Lukaku to bury low. Two Stoke defenders were close to United’s striker but he barely noticed them as he took a couple of touches.
Lingard was not even at his recent best, Juan Mata was creative and Rashford started on the bench. With all this attacking depth it is no wonder United manager Jose Mourinho is happy to let Henrikh Mkhitaryan join Arsenal as part of a deal for Alexis Sanchez. The Armenian was left out of the 18, having been with his team-mates earlier in the day, and Mourinho admitted he withdrew the player from his squad with his future in doubt. It was telling that Martial, who Arsene Wenger keenly admires and wanted to make part of a deal, started.
How the teams lined up:
Going forward, Lambert will have found slithers of encouragement for the task ahead. Ireland slipped and missed when Xherdan Shaqiri found him in a good position with a neat pass, and Phil Jones produced a vital sliding block to stop Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting scoring after David De Gea came and failed to claim a cross. De Gea’s legs denied Mame Biram Diouf late on for the clean sheet.
The last time Stoke won at Old Trafford was 1976 and it might be a long old wait yet if Lambert is unable to turn things around. It might be a while longer until there is a better passing display than Pogba’s.