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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 22 February, 2020

Man-of-the-match Pogba shows his class and more Premier League talking points

Plus, have Liverpool shown other teams the only way to beat Manchester City?

1. Man-of-the-match Pogba shows his class

PAUL POGBA PRODUCED the type of dominant performance tonight that gives an indication as to why Man United paid €105 million for his services.

The France international was a key figure in United’s 3-0 win over Stoke, as he assisted for both first-half goals and gave a good all-round performance.

Pogba now has the best assists-per-games ratio from any player in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, while the fact that United are unbeaten in top-flight games he has played this season is another telling stat.

There is a caveat though — despite his masterful performance tonight, some critics will still have reservations, particularly as he was up against relegation-threatened Stoke who afforded Pogba plenty of time and space in midfield.

Paul Scholes’ suggestion that he doesn’t always control midfield and invariably thrives in a free role is an opinion shared by other critics, including Graeme Souness.

Speaking on Sky Sports tonight, Gary Neville also gave the impression that he could struggle “in the big games” as part of a two-man midfield, with his lack of positional discipline ensuring the opposition are afforded plenty of space to expose the Red Devils on the counter-attack.

Regardless of what his best position is though, it seems clear that United are much stronger with Pogba in the team.

2. Good to see Stephen Ireland back

Stephen Ireland has made some well-documented mistakes in the past. He was young and inexperienced when the controversy with the Irish team occurred, which was over 10 years ago now, and so the player deserves the benefit of the doubt.

At 31, you would hope he is more mature, and it would take a fairly mean spirited football fan not to wish him well after coming back from a long injury layoff tonight.

It was far from ideal circumstances for Ireland’s return, coming into a struggling side against one of the best teams in the Premier League.

He missed two decent chances in the first half and looked to be feeling the pace late on in particular, when a cynical foul he committed saw the player deservedly booked.

Yet after almost three years since his last Premier League start, the fact that Ireland completed 90 minutes was encouraging.

The Cork native will need to show more if he is to extend his Stoke career beyond the end of the season (his contract runs out in the summer), but the fact that he is at least back playing in the Premier League now is a big positive.

3. Is there only one way to stop Manchester City?

Liverpool ended Man City’s top-flight unbeaten run in spectacular fashion on Sunday, with a thrilling 4-3 victory at Anfield.

The Reds earned the win by employing tactics that few teams have attempted against Pep Guardiola’s side this season.

The hosts attacked the Premier League leaders and pressed their centre-backs, regularly forcing them to make mistakes in the process.

Of course, Spurs also played quite an attacking game against City at the Etihad and ended up losing 4-1, so it is quite a risky policy.

And Liverpool, as good as they were going forward, were quite fortunate to get the three points in the end, and relied upon some exquisite finishing to get them over the line.

Whether other Premier League sides could match the Reds’ energy and prowess in front of goal when up against City is far from certain.

In addition, the plan of sticking a couple of men behind the ball and playing it long is perhaps not destined to failure. Crystal Palace did just that last month and were an injury-time missed penalty away from victory.

Others, including Bournemouth, West Ham, Huddersfield and Southampton have come desperately close to earning a point against Pep Guardiola’s men, only for a lack of concentration at the back seeing those sides conceding late goals.

So the idea that there is only one way to play against City is contentious at best — teams have had some success in frustrating them, but did not always get the good fortune their brave performances deserved.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Paul Fennessy

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