Paul Pogba shines as Man United hit the most crucial point of the season
Paul Pogba did it. Facing Chelsea on the grandest of Premier League occasions, he was expected to be one of the game's pivotal performers -- and he delivered. Gone was the frantic, anxious soul we saw against Liverpool, also at Old Trafford. Absent was the lethargic tracking back that we had seen in matches of similar magnitude.
On Sunday, Pogba did not illuminate United's 2-0 win with an array of outlandish tricks. He did not scar Chelsea's rearguard with a series of incisive long passes, either. This was not "Show Pony Paul," it was "Pressure cooker Pogba" -- his play and his passing was committed, simple and intense. His best games this year had so far featured great flair and expansive use of the ball; this was the first time since his return, though, that we had seen him bustle so much. There seemed to be an extra edge to his work, typified by his charge back into his own half to dispossess Diego Costa.
A charge often levelled at Pogba this season (not without foundation, it must be said) is that he lets the flow of the game get away from him at times, that he tries too hard to make an impression. If anything, he has in the past cared too much instead of too little, but against Chelsea, he got the balance just right. He allowed the game to come to him and United reaped the benefits of his more measured approach.
The numbers behind his performance were not all that remarkable, taken by themselves. He completed 46 passes at less than 80 percent accuracy. He won two aerial duels, completed two dribbles, made one interception, made one tackle and created one chance. Yet taken together, they tell the story of a well-rounded display, one in which he was combative in the middle of the field, helpful in defence and adventurous enough to threaten one of the best rearguards in the division.
It is tempting to think, though he might deny it, that his performance was spurred by the pundits who were unfavourably comparing his output so far this season with that of N'Golo Kante -- who was not poor on Sunday but who found himself largely outsmarted by his fellow France international. In a recent interview with Sky Sports' Geoff Shreeves, Pogba looked irritated when it was suggested that his many off-field commitments were perhaps something of a distraction from his football. Against Chelsea, he made his point in emphatic fashion.
This was an outing that both Pogba and United sorely needed. It also came at just the right moment, with the club still in contention for an automatic qualification place for the UEFA Champions League and with the second leg of their Europa League tie against Anderlecht to come this week. This season has been one of transition for Pogba, with that world-record transfer fee apparently weighing on him greatly at times, yet he here he was in a team devoid of most of the squad's most gifted attackers, carrying the additional responsibilities without visible difficulty.
It seems strange to question the big game credentials of someone who, at the age of 24, has already played a major role in four Serie A triumphs and has gone with his club and country to a UEFA Champions League final and a European Championship final. Yet these are the questions that have begun to persist, and now that he has begun to answer them, the last few games of the season have immeasurably brighter prospects.
United are already proving difficult to beat -- their 22-game undefeated streak in the Premier League is eye-catching proof -- and now, with Jose Mourinho's use of pace ahead of Pogba in the form of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, there is every chance that he will become more effective.
A key strength of the Frenchman's play is moving the ball on at speed in a manner reminiscent of Juan Sebastian Veron, yet a recurring issue this season is the forwards he has been supplying (most notably Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahimovic) do not, for all their other attributes, have the acceleration to stretch the play in a way that would make United's attack truly devastating.
Sunday's win over Chelsea was a taste of what United might become over the next couple of years: a side able to win and keep possession high up the pitch, with the speed and tenacity to control games from start to finish. In short, they could come to resemble any of the other five Premier League sides with the resources to compete regularly for the title; more to the point, they will have done so from a basis of defensive strength.
Mourinho's blueprint has taken longer to emerge this season than he would have hoped, as has Pogba's very best form but against his manager's former club, there were yet more compelling signs that an exciting future may lie ahead.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.