Paul Pogba: The return of the king
It took less than a minute. The ball was launched forward into Manchester United’s half, and Pogba intercepted it with a perfect piece of control, surged away from his nearest marker and played a pass into the feet of a teammate to start a counter-attack. Pogba was back; how he has been missed.
United create more chances with Pogba. United concede fewer goals with Pogba. United have lost one Premier League game with Pogba starting in the last 13 months. It is not just Pogba’s technical ability that makes this United team tick, but the manner in which he improves the performance of those around him. United have been sluggish and stunted in attack over their last few Pogba-less weeks. Upon his return, there was vim and vigour.
One of the keys to becoming a footballing great is to fit your fantastic individual talents seamlessly into the collective whole. There is no doubt which of Manchester United’s individuals most turns them into a team.
Salah the unlikely Golden Boot contender
From 66/1 at the start of the season, Mohamed Salah is now the sixth favourite with bookmakers to be the top goalscorer in the Premier League this season. No player has scored more times so far.
The assumption when Liverpool signed Salah is that he would become a member of a fluid front three, between which the goals would be shared out almost evenly. Last season, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho each scored 13 league goals, while nominal centre-forward Roberto Firmino scored 11. Salah had never before scored more than 15 goals in a league season.
Instead, Salah is the leader of Liverpool’s attack rather than simply a member of it. He has scored three times as many goals as any other teammate, and on Saturday took his tally in all competitions to 14. That’s the same number as last season’s top scorer Coutinho managed in the entire campaign.
There is no great secret to Salah’s goal record, for he has not suddenly become a clinical finisher. Only Harry Kane in the entire league has taken more shots and nobody has had more shots on-target. Salah’s pace and Jurgen Klopp’s strategy of keeping him on the shoulder of the last man when Liverpool counter provides him with plenty of clear-cut chances.
Still, it is interesting to witness just how dominant Salah has become so early in his Liverpool career. If Tottenham are the “Harry Kane team”, as Pep Guardiola suggested, it is worth noting that Kane has had 37% of Spurs’ shots on-target this season. On 31% at Liverpool, Salah isn’t far behind.
Ozil suffers through our demands for perfection
Perhaps it is the influence of video game culture, in which we make footballers perform superhuman feats with a console in our hands.
Perhaps it is the impact of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, all-time greats who have created unrealistic expectations of what we should expect players to achieve.
Perhaps it reflects an increase in cynicism, where we increasingly focus on what sportspeople are not, rather than what they are.
Or perhaps we just see so much live football in comparison to yesteryear that the flaws of the best players — as well as their beauty — stick with us. Ronaldinho could be lazy. Rui Costa would drift out of games.
On Saturday in the north London derby, Mesut Ozil produced a performance of extraordinary quality. He created four chances. He stretched the play with his wonderful passes. He harried down opposition defenders. He ran and he ran and he ran until he could run no more. He was complete.
Ozil is a frustration because we know he is capable of producing such completeness but does not do so in every fixture, but surely that can be spun as a compliment rather than insult? Since the start of 2015/15, Ozil has created 280 chances, comfortably the most in the Premier League. With that kind of creative brilliance, everything else is a bonus.
Wilson can overcome his injury nightmares
It’s an achievement that Callum Wilson is even playing in the Premier League at all. To suffer one cruciate knee ligament injury in unlucky, but to suffer two in two years after your first ever promotion to the top-flight is to fall foul of exceptional misfortune. At the age of 25, Wilson could have taken months of match time to re-find his best form and nobody could have criticised.
But two years and two months since his first Premier League hat-trick, which came seven days before that first cruciate injury was sustained, Wilson scored his second in just his second Premier League start since January. That is a marvellous accomplishment and due reward for a player who worked tirelessly on his recovery.
“He was at the peak of his powers when he scored that hat-trick at West Ham when we first entered the Premier League,” said Eddie Howe after the victory over Huddersfield Town. “It looked like he had the world at his feet and that’s how quickly things can change in football.”
Wilson will be hoping that things can change for the better as quickly as they lurched for the worse.
He will publicly plead the importance of walking before he can run, but there is the World Cup next summer and possibly a striker spot up for grabs. Nothing gets a striker noticed quicker than a hat-trick.