By Matthew Galea
Manchester United continued to impress as they played their first home game of the season and put on quite the show for the adoring home fans.
Paul Pogba made his return to Old Trafford in glorious fashion as he started his first game since arriving from Juventus as a Zlatan Ibrahimovic brace proved the difference as United pumped Southampton 2-0, in a game where the scoreline perhaps should have been more one-sided.
To Southampton’s credit they frustrated a United attack lacking fluidity for much of the first half until Ibrahimovic outmuscled his marker to head home from a delightful Wayne Rooney goal and perhaps even crafted better chances themselves to that point.
But the second half was one-way traffic and Ibrahimovic’s second from the penalty spot was well deserved for the dominant home side.
Here are five things we learned from United’s Old Trafford opener.
POGBA IS PRETTY GOOD
Cue my best Larry David impersonation.
Pogba is pretty good. Prett-aaaaaay, prett-aaaaaaaay good.
Alright, so his first touch after his world record transfer back to Old Trafford was nothing to write home about…
Pogba's first touch for Man Utd 🔥 pic.twitter.com/XSbv0URiqW
— Transfer Related (@TransferRelated) August 19, 2016
… but after that it was a nearly faultless display.
Pogba dominated the midfield, earning rave reviews for his performance from manager Jose Mourinho, the media, team-mates and pretty much anyone else that saw his performance alike.
All he lacked was a goal – and he did have chances to at the very least test the goalkeeper – but all in all, his passing range and selection was terrific, his ability to beat opponents one-on-one (and sometimes three-on-one) was evident and his athleticism ensured he covered every blade of grass and outmuscled just about everyone on the park.
Even better than that, he looks an absolute hit with his team-mates. He was joking with Ibrahimovic after the game and he even has an…interesting…custom handshake with fellow new boy Eric Bailly.
Zlatan & Pogba https://t.co/VHv3iBGlfM
— Footbalista (@footbalista_) August 19, 2016
— #5 Magazine (@5mag) August 19, 2016
If Pogba was brilliant, then he had an amazing supporting cast in Marouane Fellaini once again.
The Belgian destroyer is revelling under new management in Mourinho, and while he was favoured by both Louis van Gaal and David Moyes – who signed him for the club – ironically it is the Portuguese who is getting the best out of the big man in midfield.
Fellaini’s role – in many ways – has been simplified, but he is revelling in its simplicity.
Win the ball, pass it off and repeat as required.
Nothing fancy, no need to bust a gut to get up the field and batter everyone with his head, just win the ball and give it off and there was no one more effective at recovering possession than Fellaini.
Without wanting to sound harsh, Fellaini does not excel at much else, but as long as he is paired with a superior ball player like Pogba or Herrera, his role does not need to involve anything else.
His performances are making the likes of Pogba and Herrera look even better than they already are and long may it continue.
SHAW AND VALENCIA LIGHT UP FLANKS
While not totally unexpected, it has been fantastic to see the overlapping runs of Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia from full-back feature so prominently in United attacks under Mourinho.
Valencia looks like his former self barraging up the right flank at will and delivering a constant threat, while Shaw’s pace and tricky dribbling earned United’s second when he was fouled in the box for a second-half penalty.
Given the horrific leg break he suffered last season, just seeing Shaw on the park is pleasing, but to see him pick up right where he left off even more so.
Valencia, on the other hand, is enjoying the attacking freedom given to him by Mourinho and he now looks to have become a vital part of his new manager’s plans.
MOURINHO’S MEN CONTINUE TO IMPROVE
While individuals like Pogba and Ibrahimovic have impressed, the overall team structure and attacking intent improved again against Southampton.
United finished the game with less possession than Southampton but what Mourinho’s side lacked in quantity it made up for in quality.
Their domination came in bursts, but when those periods came it was total control.
Ideally, United will be able to maintain those periods more consistently and with more goals to show for it in the coming weeks, but as far as three competitive games under a new manager with a new system and new players go – progress is very good.
Surely, it is just a matter of time before Henrikh Mkhitaryan gets his first Premier League start.
Neither Juan Mata nor Rooney set the world alight at Old Trafford. They were functional parts of the machine, but little more than that.
Mkhitaryan is an able replacement for either and his 15 minutes cameo offered plenty of promise.
The former Borussia Dortmund star is quick, has an eye for a pass and has no trouble beating his man.
Hopefully, we get to see him get a full 90 minutes soon.