Man United's persistence pays off vs. Huddersfield as Paul Pogba gets the message
MANCHESTER, England -- Three points from Old Trafford on Manchester United's 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town in the Premier League.
1. Sanchez, United back to winning ways
At Arsenal, Alexis Sanchez was more often than not a player capable of game-changing brilliance and notable tantrums. He appears to have started his Manchester United career in much the same fashion, scoring the second in a 2-0 win over Huddersfield while directing invective at any teammate who made mild errors.
Sanchez scored a rebound from a penalty he both won and took, adding to Romelu Lukaku's fine finish not long after half-time to give United the sort of relatively comfortable win they needed. They remain 13 points behind Manchester City, so the Premier League title remains a distant and forlorn hope, but this was at least a return to winning ways.
Jose Mourinho reacted strongly to the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham on Tuesday by making four changes to his Manchester United team, most notably dropping Paul Pogba to the bench. Pogba has been left out of United teams before, but this seemed to be the first time he has been omitted purely due to poor performance. Youngster Scott McTominay took his place, while Phil Jones missed out altogether through illness.
The first half didn't offer much by way of quality football, but was pretty enjoyable nonetheless. Referee Stuart Attwell managed to turn fans from both sides, all 74,000-plus inside Old Trafford, against him after a series of questionable decisions. United felt they should've been given a penalty after McTominay was flattened in an aerial challenge by Terence Kongolo, while the travelling fans screamed injustice at a string of adverse minor decisions.
The most entertaining/embarrassing (depending on your point of view) moment of the first half came when Rajiv van La Parra went down claiming a foul from Antonio Valencia, lay prone on the turf as if felled by a mighty axe, only to leap back up when the ball came near him and dash off down the wing.
United were more in control from the start of the second period, and took the lead after 55 minutes. Juan Mata whipped over a cross from the left, Lukaku inched ahead of his marker and flicked a strong finish into the bottom corner. The Belgian had been broadly anonymous to that point, but his finish was instinctive and emphatic.
Pogba came on for Jesse Lingard in the 65th minute, and was instrumental in the move that lead to United's second. His pass was laid-off by Lukaku to Sanchez, who was felled for a penalty: the Chilean took it himself, it was saved by Jonas Lossl but he was there to turn home the rebound.
A banner welcoming Sanchez's dogs, Atom and Humber, was swiftly removed by some over-efficient stewards in the second half. Not that he will mind after this result, presumably.
2. Pogba gets the message
A heavy-handed response to one bad performance? A message? Simply an opportunity to offer a rest with a reasonable hectic schedule ahead?
The omission of Pogba from the United starting XI was always going to be a big talking point, but there could have been any number of reasons for it. The most prevalent interpretation was that it represented Mourinho's way of telling him that his place in the team wasn't guaranteed.
It makes sense: United were always likely to win this game, so the risk involved in leaving Pogba out was minimal, giving Mourinho a chance to make his point.
Pogba certainly looked very purposeful when he came on, and it was interesting that he came on in place of Lingard, who had been playing just behind Lukaku. Most believe that Pogba's best position is either as a No.10 or as the most attacking of a midfield three, giving him the freedom to attack without the defensive responsibilities that aren't his forte.
While he only had 25 minutes on the pitch, Pogba looked like he was trying to make a point. His enormous, booming pass lead to United's second, an ambitious but most importantly effective ball that displayed his talent but also why he can be so frustrating when he's off the pace.
Shortly afterwards he shimmied through a few challenges and launched a shot from the edge of the area: the effort went well wide, but it was the intent that was most notable.
Maybe this will act as a kick up Pogba's rear, whether you think he needed it or not. But with the caveat that these were not the most testing of circumstances, Pogba certainly indicated that when used in his preferred position, he can still be effective as well as joyous to watch.
3. Huddersfield honeymoon over
Honeymoon over for David Wagner. There is obviously no suggestion that the Huddersfield manager's job is under threat: that would be absurd, considering where they were when he arrived in 2015, but Town are now in the bottom three for the first time this season.
This represented their fifth defeat in a row, and while you can excuse losses to Manchester United and Liverpool, it's the ones against teams like West Ham (who beat them 4-1 a few weeks ago) and Stoke that are more concerning.
Huddersfield are also winless in eight, and that victory over United back in October feels like a very long time ago now.
Of course few would expect them to romp to three points at Old Trafford, but it was perhaps their lack of any creativity that was most worrying here. Aaron Mooy, usually their most inventive player, was left out from the start and while he came on for Philip Billing in the first half, the tone was set.
Huddersfield's plan seemed to be more physical than technical: the tackles were tough to the point of needlessly aggressive, and in giant forwards like Laurent Depoitre and Collin Quaner, their work in the final third was never likely to be intricate.
The problem is that if this approach doesn't work and they fall a couple of goals down, as they did here, it's difficult to change direction.
The bottom of the table is so tight that a few good results will have Huddersfield up the league again in no time, but those results need to come soon before this decline becomes really serious.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.