The pleas to “Attack! Attack! Attack!” from the Stretford End have been answered, and the £90 million midfielder is finally more menacing than mercurial.
Manchester United look to make it three wins in three matches under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Sunday at Old Trafford, where they face a Bournemouth side struggling to find any sort of consistency on a match-to-match basis.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
“You don’t change anything in one week, but you change the mindset,” Solskjaer told United’s official website regarding what is different for a talented team that never got out of second gear under Mourinho. “I want my team to play in a certain way and I give them little pointers here and there. It’s a work in progress, that’s what it is. It’s going to take time as the players go from one manager and the details he wanted and I have a little bit of a tweak. It will improve as time goes on.”
Though it is too early to call United’s first two managers under Solskjaer a rebuke to his sacked predecessor, it is readily evident the players have quickly heeded the former United striker and Norway international’s instructions to pour forward in his 180 minutes on the touchline.
While Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town will not be confused with the class of the Premier League this term, Manchester United (9-5-5) did smash eight goals past the overwhelmed and relegation-threatened sides and recorded a 3-1 victory over the Bluebirds on Boxing Day.
Pogba, whose relationship with Mourinho could best be described as antagonistic and fractured, continued his fine play under his new boss with a second-half brace that marked his first goal since following up his missed penalty versus Everton on Oct. 28. Playing a more advanced role than under Mourinho, the France international and World Cup winner has factored on four of United’s eight goals.
“It was great to see him score two goals and he has created the goals last week at Cardiff, and now he scores them himself, so he will be even better for getting two lots of 90 minutes now and he will be fitter and fitter and improving with the team,” Solskjaer said regarding Pogba.
Also encouraging has been the play of Jesse Lingard, who has two goals and two assists in the last two matches. The England international appears to be finally over the fatigue hangover of helping the Three Lions reach the World Cup semifinals and gamely carving out playing time among a group of attackers close to 100 percent.
Two of those players – centre-forward Romelu Lukaku and winger Alexis Sanchez – may be available for selection since they have returned to training this week. Anthony Martial is also expected to be available after being a late scratch midweek with an illness. How Solskjaer incorporates Sanchez will be closely followed given the Chile international had fallen out of Mourinho’s good graces prior to his injury.
Through the first half of the season, Bournemouth (8-2-9) have ranged from irresistible to insipid with their play. It swung to the latter Boxing Day as Tottenham Hotspur ran riot in a 5-0 hiding of the Cherries at Wembley.
Eddie Howe’s team did not play all that poorly, but rather, they were caught in a thresher of Spurs’ dynamic offence that punished his side for every mistake. Adding injury to insult, Bournemouth lost right back and talisman Simon Francis for the remainder of the season with a ruptured ACL suffered late in the first half.
“It’s a huge blow for us, Simon, everyone connected with the club,” Howe said at his Friday news conference. “He’s been our leader on the pitch and a role model and a big miss in the dressing room. As a team it’s a big loss and a big gap to fill.
“He didn’t deserve that, but it’s happened and now we’ll do our best to support him through this process.”
Francis’ absence means Bournemouth – who have dropped eight of their last 10 in all competitions starting with a loss to United in the reverse fixture in early November — are without both first-choice wide backs as Adam Smith has also been sidelined by a knee injury. He joins midfielders Lewis Cook and Dan Gosling as long-term injury absentees, with Diego Rico the most likely candidate to step in at right back after doing so for the second half of Wednesday’s loss.
Amazingly, Bournemouth midfielder Jefferson Lerma is one caution from serving his second ban for yellow card accumulation, one that would carry a two-match suspension. The Colombia international accrued five yellow cards in the Cherries’ first 14 matches and has been booked in their last four league fixtures.
The Cherries have yet to find a successful formula for beating the Big Six. Their first go-round resulted in six losses while being outscored 18-3. Their best stretch of play in any of those matches came in the reverse fixture at Dean Court, where they nearly ran United off the pitch in the opening half-hour and took a deserved 1-0 lead through Callum Wilson on 11 minutes.
Bournemouth, though, could not sustain that momentum and came undone late as Marcus Rashford bundled home a stoppage-time winner for United. Martial scored the other goal in that contest as the Red Devils are looking to do the double over Bournemouth for the second straight season. United are unbeaten in the last six between the sides (5-1-0) since the Cherries pulled off a 2-1 upset in their first Premier League meeting back in 2015.
Bournemouth are 0-1-2 at Old Trafford since being promoted and have never won there in seven all-time trips (0-1-6).
Per Bet365, United are strong 2/5 favourites to make it three wins in three under Solskjaer, while Bournemouth are 7/1 underdogs to end a nine-game skid to Big Six opponents dating back to last season. There are 17/4 odds on the sides splitting the points.
Both teams’ form in the opposite directions have created 8/15 odds on the teams surpassing 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds to finish under that mark. There are 4/6 odds both sides will score compared to 11/10 odds of a clean sheet in either direction.
Lukaku’s anticpated return has made him the frontrunner for first-goal honours at 15/4 odds, with Martial’s expected return putting him second at 4/1. Rashford and Pogba are joint-third at 5/1, with Lingard at 7/1. Wilson is Bournemouth’s top option at 8/1 to score the first goal in both matches between the clubs, with backup striker Jermain Defoe the second choice of the Cherries at 9/1.
Lukaku is 10/11 odds to score during the course of the match, and Martial is even money. Rashford and Pogba are both 5/4 options, and Lingard is a 15/8 selection. Wilson is an 11/5 pick for the Cherries, with Defoe a 5/2 pick and Joshua King an 11/2 offering.
And just like that, all is good with Manchester United.
Well, not really. But things are certainly better during the holiday season since Solskjaer has arrive at Old Trafford. The most notable and obvious change under the former United striker has been to put Pogba in an advanced position in a 4-2-3-1 set-up while also serving the dual purpose of putting both Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera into a partnership in defensive midfield.
The back line is right now as close to a polished product as United have been all season, though the eventual transition from Ashley Young to Diogo Dalot is something that will have to be made in league and FA Cup play ahead as opposed to their Champions League showdown with PSG down the road.
The expected return of at least Martial for this match, with potentially both Lukaku and Sanchez coming off the bench will create pleasant selection headaches for Solskjaer in the coming matches, but right now Lingard is evolving into the player who showed flashes of brilliance this summer for England. If Pogba continues to thrive and be happy in his new role, there is still time for United to make a run at a top-four spot.
That will be difficult since it will require them overtaking both Arsenal and Chelsea, though they may be helped by the road United once traveled to get back to Champions League play themselves — winning the Europa League. But that’s also down the road.
Bournemouth have hit a crossroads in their season — they are obviously in no danger of relegation, but the hopes of being that best team outside the Big Six have taken a huge hit with Francis’ season-ending injury. The attractive football the Cherries like to play now has an added element of pressure as it is now more likely their wins will come by outscoring opponents as opposed to grinding them down.
There is much velvet to Bournemouth, but little steel inside that glove, especially in the spine as Lerma and Andrew Surman offer little protection for Nathan Ake and Steven Cook. That could be a large problem in this match as Pogba has been reinvigorated and Rashford can cause all sorts of headaches leading the line with his pace.
Bournemouth can take solace in the fact they were the better team against United for the first half-hour last month and arguably should have had more than one goal if not for the continued quality work of United keeper David De Gea. But if the Cherries are going to take even one point from this match, they must find a way to sustain that against a recharged United side, and that seems unlikely given the current form of both teams.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 4, Bournemouth 2.