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Paul Pogba defies critics as his incredible Manchester United record marches on

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Photo: Reuters

There is no denying that Manchester United‘s Paul Pogba is a footballing enigma.

There is nobody in the Premier League more talked about and, either for better or for worse, his name has plagued each and every leading sports publication since returning to Old Trafford last year.

His £89 million price tag has followed him around like a shadow ever since the then-world record fee was announced, with journalists and pundits alike using it as a means of leverage as soon as he puts one foot wrong.

Add this to the fact that he is a footballing purist’s worst nightmare and there is even more leverage to use.

His ever-changing hairstyles, his constant attempts at audacity on the football pitch and his inventive celebrations perhaps lend him more towards a younger breed of fan, rather than those that have presided in the Stretford End since the pre-Premier League era.

But say what you want, he doesn’t half know how to play football.

Monday night’s comfortable 3-0 victory over beleaguered Stoke City increased Pogba’s incredulous personal unbeaten run to 35 Premier League games – a record unmatched by anyone in the division.

Has this run come about through luck? Is it a coincidence? Or is it just his brilliance?

On balance you would have to say that it is the latter option.

His brace of assists against the Potters took his tally up to nine for the season from just 13 league outings, taking him level with Manchester City’s duo of golden boys Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane.

To try and gather a sense of perspective on just how impressive a feat this is, there are six players across Europe’s top five leagues on nine assists at the time of writing (including Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar) and the Frenchman has reached the mark the quickest – it makes for impressive reading among esteemed company.

His creativity can’t be disputed in the Manchester United midfield and, even though he missed ten league games through a combination of injuries and suspensions, he is still the third-most creative outlet in their side.

Over 13 appearances he has crafted 27 clear-cut opportunities, only narrowly behind Juan Mata’s precedent of 33, and you can bet your life he will have trumped him by the time January is done and dusted.

To reach the nine-assist mark in 967 minutes less than De Bruyne, who has unequivocally been the stand-out player in the league this season, is merely a marker of how good the 24-year-old really is.

However, naturally there are those that will still criticise his every move.

They may have a point – after all, at least four of Pogba’s assists this season have come virtue of individual brilliance from his teammates (Anthony Martial vs Swansea City/Stoke City, Antonio Valencia vs Stoke City and Jesse Lingard vs Everton) – and compared to the type of defence-splitting pass that a number of De Bruyne’s assists have come from there is a lot more skill and finesse on show from the Belgian.

Yet, what those nay-sayers fail to acknowledge is Pogba’s ability to find pockets of space between midfield and defensive lines to play those short passes into his teammates. And there’s little coincidence that his increased impact on matches and his upheaval in form has come since Nemanja Matic stepped through the door.

Jose Mourinho’s ability to lure him out of Stamford Bridge and over to Manchester has evidently given Pogba a new lease of life, and more importantly the sense of freedom to be a creative force that he so often was at Juventus.

When he was playing in Serie A he had the comfort of knowledge that Claudio Marchisio was marshalling the defence behind him, and this is something that United didn’t have in 2016-17.

Last season, part of Pogba’s struggle to impress was, in part, down to this constant need to help out in defence, and he was often playing in a deeper role than he would have liked. Yet this season Matic’s holding role offers the defence that protection, freeing the Frenchman to be more elaborate in attack.

To see just how instrumental he has become to this Manchester United side you only have to look back to his time spent side-lined by a hamstring knock, where they suffered their only three defeats of the season to date.

These – which came against Huddersfield Town, Chelsea and Manchester City – were games that were crying out for Pogba’s assertiveness in midfield, but that spark, which he has in abundance, was found missing.

Whilst both Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are good Premier League quality players in their own right neither possess the box-to-box drive, the physical power or the pace that Pogba himself does, and it showed as they failed to replicate the Frenchman’s energy and endeavour in defeat.

This season alone Pogba’s completed 33 of his 46 attempted dribbles, achieving a 72% success rate, and it is this ability to maraud into the opposition territory that United sorely missed in his absence.

There are those that will say that his return to the side saw United bow out of the Carabao Cup to Championship side Bristol City and then draw three successive Premier League fixtures.

And, once again, they have a point.

But when taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture there aren’t many players in the English game that can conjure up a piece of magic to turn a game around, nor consistently reach a high-level week-in, week-out, and Pogba’s one of them.

He makes everything look effortless on the football pitch – whether that be spraying a raking pass across the pitch to someone’s feet or muscling an opponent off the ball easily to turn over possession – and it is fair to say Manchester United would look a worse side without him.

Whilst this may sound like a glowing review, it has not always been good news, of course.

Pogba will be the first to admit that he struggled to reach his extremely high standards during 2016-17 – despite leading United to two pieces of silverware – and he will have felt the pressure of his price tag as the season went on.

And, while he has come out ready to impress this time around, there are still parts of his game that frustrate – not least his wastefulness in front of goal, often attempting to shoot from 30-yards out.

But that is just the player he is, and don’t expect it to change anytime soon.

At the end of the day, his demeanour both on and off the football field will always get him talked about, and the only thing he can do is continue to rack up the wins to keep his harshest critics at bay.

Whilst Manchester United’s early season hopes of a title challenge have been diminished due to Manchester City’s brilliance, Pogba’s enjoying a fine run of personal form that is catching the eye.

Should he stay fit there is no reason as to why Mourinho’s men cannot sustain a challenge for the Champions League and the FA Cup long into the year.

And you never know, should Pogba extend his unbeaten run to 60 Premier League matches come the end of the season then there may even be a chance of the unlikeliest title in top-flight history – although I wouldn’t book a day off work for the United trophy parade just yet.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

Manchester United

“Imagine thinking Phil Jones is better”: Newcastle fans react to Jamaal Lascelles omission

Newcastle fans can’t believe Jamaal Lascelles is not going to the World Cup this summer.

Max Cohen

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Jamaal Lascelles
Photo: Getty Images

Chelsea narrowly defeated Manchester United in Saturday’s FA Cup Final, thanks to Eden Hazard’s first-half penalty.

United centre-half Phil Jones conceded the spot-kick, felling the Belgian in the box and drawing the ire of Twitter in the process.

Newcastle United supporters were baffled at Jones’ poor cup final performance and criticised England manager Gareth Southgate for selecting the 26-year-old defender ahead of Jamaal Lascelles in the World Cup squad.

Against Chelsea, Jones made headlines for his high-profile mistake 20 minutes into the match.

The defender was caught flat-footed just inside his own half when Cesc Fabregas played a lofted ball in the direction of Eden Hazard.

The Belgian’s first touch was excellent and left Jones for dead, putting the Englishman on the wrong side of the ball.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Hazard then cut back across Jones, before the defender lunged into an ill-timed challenge that got nowhere near the ball.

In a cup final of such importance, mistakes such as Jones’ can prove immensely costly. And as United lost the match by the solitary goal, the centre-back’s error was devastating.

And the Manchester United defender’s poor showing incensed English supporters, who were furious at his inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man team.

In particular, Newcastle United fans felt aggrieved that Jones was selected in front of their captain Jamaal Lascelles.

Lascelles has been superb all season for the Magpies, marshaling the Newcastle defence while leading the club to an impressive tenth-placed finish.

Unlike Jones, who has been an inconsistent feature in United’s side, Lascelles featured in 33 Premier League matches this season – ten more than the United defender.

The Newcastle United faithful expressed their discontent at the England manager’s defensive team selections, arguing Lascelles would have proved a far more effective option in Russia.

And as one intrepid Twitter user noted, when Newcastle United played host to Chelsea just one week ago, Lascelles kept Hazard in check and held the Blues scoreless. Jones, on the other hand, capitulated in the face of the Belgian’s skills.

England face Belgium on 28 June in their final group stage match; Newcastle and Three Lions fans alike will be praying Phil Jones does not feature.

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Manchester United

Luke Shaw must seek Mauricio Pochettino reunion to revive floundering career

Max Cohen

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Luke Shaw
Photo: Getty Images

The latest disappointment in a dreadful season for Luke Shaw came on Wednesday, when the Manchester United defender was left out of England’s World Cup squad.

Limited to just 11 league appearances this season, amid a falling-out with Jose Mourinho, the full-back must seek a move to Tottenham Hotspur this summer and reunite with ex-Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino.

It is easy to forget that Shaw is just 22 years of age, as the left back burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old back in 2012.

Once considered one of the world’s finest young defenders, Shaw played in the 2014 World Cup for England and was signed by Manchester United for £30 million – the world record fee for a teenager at the time.

However, the Englishman’s time at Old Trafford has been a troubled one. Filled with injuries and managerial bust-ups, Shaw appears a shadow of his former self and is desperately short of confidence and playing time.

(Photo by Lindsey Parnaby/Getty Images)

A transfer to White Hart Lane to link up with old boss Mauricio Pochettino would be the ideal switch for the left back.

Shaw still has time on his side to revive his career, as at only 22 years old, he has many playing years in front of him.

The Argentinian would be the perfect manager to coax the best out of the fullback, due to Pochettino’s impressive knack for getting the best out of promising youngsters.

The two spent a year-and-a-half together at St. Mary’s and Shaw has since spoken glowingly about his respect and adoration for Pochettino in Guillem Balague’s book Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs:

“I do hope that I can play for him again one day. And I think he really wants me to play under him again.”

In order to save his floundering career, Shaw must leave Old Trafford and make the switch to Spurs to rekindle his relationship with Mauricio Pochettino.

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Four Premier League ‘flops’ that have gone on to excel in Europe

There are some exceptional former Premier League disappointments now excelling abroad.

Martyn Cooke

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Flops
Photo: Getty Images

Mohammed Salah has emerged as one of the leading performers in world football this season after having an incredible debut season with Liverpool.

The 25-year-old has scored a combined total of 44 goals for club and country this campaign and was subsequently voted as both the PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year.

However, it was only two years ago that Salah was being branded as a flop following a short, unsuccessful stint with Chelsea.

The Egyptian made only a handful of appearances at Stamford Bridge and had to rebuild his reputation in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma prior to emerging as one of the best players in the world this campaign.

Here, The Boot Room looks at four other Premier League flops that have rebuilt their careers in European football.

Memphis Depay

(Photo by Jeff Pachoud/Getty Images)

There was considerable excitement when Manchester United signed Dutch prodigy Memphis Depay for £31 million in the summer of 2015.

The 21-year-old had been the Eredivisie’s leading goal scorer in the previous campaign with his pace, technical ability and unpredictability helping PSV Eindhoven to a first Dutch title in almost a decade.

However, Depay failed to find his feet in England and was unable to secure regular first-team football.

His inconsistent form on the pitch was further emphasized by his reputation for being something of a flashy, egotistical playboy off it.

He was subsequently sold to Lyon for an initial fee of £16 million in January 2017 having failed to impress Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho that he was worthy of a starting role.

The Dutchman has subsequently excelled in France and has exploits have helped Lyon to qualify for the Champions League next season.

He has scored 19 times in all competitions this campaign and is one of only a handful of players who have reached double figures for both goals scored and assists this campaign.

Furthermore, now 24 years of age, Depay has also begun to mature and lose his former bad-boy image.

Andrej Kramaric

(Photo by Daniel Roland/Getty Images)

When Leicester City broke their transfer record in January 2014 to purchase Andrej Kramaric for £9 million, it was widely considered to be an excellent piece of business.

The forward had been prolific in Croatian football where he was averaging over a goal a game with Rijeka and had already secured a regular place in the international team.

All of the signs indicated that The Foxes had bought a young, prolific goal scorer.

Ultimately, Kramaric failed to replicate his previous form and had a diminutive impact at the King Power Stadium.

He started just six games for Leicester before being loaned out to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim in January 2016, mid-way through Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning season, and he made the move permanent when the campaign concluded.

Now, 26 years of age, the Croatian has rediscovered his goal scoring touch in Germany netting 30 goals across all competitions over the previous two years.

He hit a hat-trick against Hannover at the end of April to fire Hoffenheim towards Champions League qualification and was hailed as a ‘top striker’ by his team-mate Havard Nordtveit.

Paulinho

(Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2013, Tottenham Hotspur broke their record transfer by purchasing midfielder Paulinho for a fee believed to be around £17 million.

Spurs had just sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and the Brazilian was one of a number of high profile and expensive signings that the club made as they reinvested the money.

Paulinho made a solid, if not spectacular, start to life at White Hart Lane and was a regular feature in his first season, making 30 appearances in the Premier League.

However, in the summer of 2013, Mauricio Pochettino replaced Tim Sherwood as manager and the midfielder simply never featured in the Argentinian’s plans.

He made just three starts and was subsequently sold to Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande for £10 million.

It was initially thought that the Brazilian’s top flight career in Europe was over until Barcelona made the surprise move to sign him in the summer of 2017.

Paulinho has emerged as a key feature at the Nou Camp this season, making almost 50 appearances across all competitions, to help the club secure a domestic league and cup double, leaving Tottenham supporters wondering if they sold the midfielder too soon.

Iago Aspas

(Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Liverpool signed diminutive Spanish forward Iago Aspas in the summer of 2013 for a £7 million as Brendan Rodgers continued to remould the playing squad at Anfield.

The striker’s arrival was something of a surprise considering he was uncapped at international level and was not widely perceived as being a prolific goal scorer.

The Spaniard struggled to find his feet in the Premier League and made only a handful of appearances before returning to La Liga with Sevilla at the end of the campaign.

He scored only once, a solitary strike in the FA Cup against Oldham Athletic, and his most noticeable contribution was producing one of the worst corner kicks of all time against Chelsea.

However, Aspas is now flourishing with hometown club Celta Vigo and is regarding as one of the most prolific strikers in La Liga.

He has scored 21 goals across all competitions this season in 35 appearances and is the leading Spanish goalscorer across all of Europe’s top flight leagues.

He has a genuine chance of leading Spain’s forward line this summer at the World Cup.

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