Pogba, Man United respond to Mourinho criticism with win
BOURNEMOUTH, England -- Three points on Manchester United's 2-0 win vs. Bournemouth in the Premier League:
1. Pogba impresses as United get confidence boost
If a challenge had been laid down to Paul Pogba, the midfielder's 40-yard run and slide-rule pass that allowed Romelu Lukaku to seal this 2-0 win at Bournemouth on Wednesday might just have answered it to Jose Mourinho's satisfaction.
While other expensive stars took a rest, Pogba was put through almost 80 minutes of what was ultimately a routine victory and, in truth, he needed a game-affecting moment like that assist; though he was named man of the match by UK broadcasters, his was hardly a dominant all-round performance but nor was it the kind of vacant display that has angered his manager.
Mourinho had been furious with United's performance in Sunday's home defeat to West Brom and made seven changes to his starting lineup, naming the likes of Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Nemanja Matic on the bench. In practice, it was probably as much through a desire to rest legs ahead of Saturday's FA Cup semifinal vs. Tottenham as a mass wielding of the axe, but Pogba's name stood out glaringly among those retained.
Was this a case of a manager explicitly offering a player, whose inconsistency has been such an acute source of frustration, the chance to play his way into the starting XI at Wembley, or perhaps out of it? There was little in Pogba's performance to cause agitation either way but his influence certainly grew as the second half took hold.
He had already set Marcus Rashford away with one slick turn and left-footed pass and later won a free kick on the 18-yard line through sheer presence. Those were promising moments, but the sense remains that a player of Pogba's ability should be imposing himself to a far greater extent when a game needs grabbing.
In the first half he showed for the ball willingly enough and moved it on with fair success; there was little particular drive or instinctiveness to his play, though, and the debate will rumble on over the share of responsibility he and Mourinho respectively hold for the 25-year-old's patchy form.
He and United did enough here, though, and strengthened their hold on second place with two moments of quality. Saturday, as the £89 million signing will discover, is set to be another test entirely.
2. Mourinho's selection in focus
Four points ahead of Liverpool with four games left, United's Premier League runners-up spot is closer to being confirmed and all eyes now lie on how Mourinho will line up his team for the meeting with Spurs that, ultimately, could define their season.
Jesse Lingard was among those recalled at Bournemouth and he did his chances of a start at Wembley no harm. It was his low cross that laid on Chris Smalling's 28th-minute opener from United's only genuinely incisive move of the first half, and his movement -- often drifting in intelligently from the right -- was one of the more encouraging facets of the game for United.
Lingard was replaced by Lukaku with 28 minutes to play, suggesting Mourinho was minded to save his legs for Saturday, and it says plenty for his progress that he is now one of the players on whom United rely for the biggest occasions.
In a similar vein, Ander Herrera also came off early after a performance that was smooth and economical; Mourinho may be tempted to name the same team that defeated Manchester City 10 days ago, in which both Lingard and Herrera, as well as Pogba, featured prominently.
Nobody is likely to have made a shock case for inclusion, although Luke Shaw, selected at left-back, did his standing with his manager no harm; defending diligently and supporting Anthony Martial to some effect in the first half.
There were also good signs from Phil Jones against a pacy Bournemouth front line, with one early piece of defending against Callum Wilson preventing the striker from getting away and showing that speed along the ground can be offset by brain and brawn.
Mourinho, largely impassive in the Vitality Stadium dugout throughout the match, has food for thought over the next three days. However, at least he can reflect that United are broadly back on track.
3. Bournemouth struggle again vs. the top six
When Bournemouth reflect on what has, overall, been a satisfying season, perhaps they will identify their record against the league's sides as an area for improvement.
They were certainly not outplayed here but will end the campaign with 10 defeats from 12 games against the current top six and eight from eight vs. the top four. If they are to push on, they must find a way to bloody more noses, particularly at home; this, for example, was a lively enough performance, but never really offered the conviction that they would deal United another damaging setback.
Eddie Howe's side had essentially a free hit, a chance to improving their case for a top-half finish. Their current tally of 38 points will surely keep them up, although their manager will preach the need to make sure over the next three games.
Howe selected an attack-minded team here in an attempt to do just that and, for periods in each half, Bournemouth moved the ball quicker than their expensively assembled visitors. The pace of Wilson, Jordon Ibe, Ryan Fraser, Josh King and substitute Lys Mousset was a threat, and the home side found gaps between United's full-backs and centre-backs several times.
However, clear chances were few and the only moment of genuine trouble for David De Gea was a King drive that the keeper was forced to beat away on the stroke of half-time. The forward also saw a second-half effort deflected wide and narrowly failed to convert a Wilson cross with the score at 1-0.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.