Manchester United’s first win in five games didn’t come easy. Trips to Goodison Park, after all, rarely are easy. But the Red Devils, after three uninspiring Premier League draws in a row, exploded out of their funk in a resplendent second half at Everton.
A nondescript first half gave way to United dominance after the halftime interval. Lingard and Martial combined with Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba to trouble Everton down the left. Two crosses barely evaded United feet. Juan Mata tested Everton keeper Jordan Pickford, then beat him, only to see his long-range drive snip the outside of the post.
Martial then capped a strong initial spell with a cool finish from the top of the penalty area. Pogba had picked him out with a crisp outside-of-the-foot pass.
“It was hard to find me in the first half,” Pogba told NBC Sports Network after the match. “It was hard to find space as well. In the second half, we had more space. That’s how we found the goal.”
For the first 20 minutes of the half, Everton was almost entirely confined to its own half. Its lack of a true striker was glaring. But over the next 10, it punched back. James McCarthy, on in place of Wayne Rooney, changed the balance of power in midfield. The hosts finally escaped their defensive shell to threaten United’s goal, and had the visitors scrambling on more than one occasion.
But after United weathered the storm, Lingard bagged the three points for the visitors with a curling strike into the top corner.
The difference for United, though, was Pogba and his positioning. For much of the season, Jose Mourinho has deployed his best and most expensive player as part of a double pivot at the base of midfield. Even alongside Nemanja Matic, Pogba’s freedom in that role was limited.
On Monday, he played without constraint in a No. 10 role. Pogba can get confused for a No. 8 at times because of his athleticism and superiority in one-on-one duels. He’s strong on both sides of the ball. But he’s most valuable on the attacking side. Strip away all his defensive qualities, and he’d still be one of the top advanced playmakers in the world.
“I feel more comfortable offensively,” Pogba told NBCSN. “It’s always better to be next to the strikers. .. My best position is more forward.”
Mourinho and United got the best out of Pogba the playmaker at Goodison Park. Lingard, who had been excelling in behind the striker, shifted wide left and didn’t miss a beat. Pogba scored neither of United’s two goals, but helped engineer both. In general, he floated around the attacking half of the pitch, and bossed the game in the second half. He both controlled it and opened it up for United’s attackers.
United struggled in the first half without a true No. 9. Both Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are out injured, and their absences were apparent. But Pogba transformed the attack after halftime, and Martial provided the quality in front of goal that United needed to make its dominance count.
United’s problems aren’t solved, and the race for 2018-19 Champions League football is far from won. But Monday’s win, at the end of a grueling holiday period, was necessary for stabilization purposes. And United, thanks to the second-half performance, snatched it.
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