If Pep Guardiola could have handpicked one Manchester United player to miss the derby next week it would have been Paul Pogba.
The Frenchman’s interview with the BBC earlier in the day – when he expressed his hope that some of Manchester City’s top stars would miss some games through injury this season – was destined to come back to bite him.
Saturday’s win over Arsenal might be three more points for United to move them within five of City temporarily, but Pogba’s reckless red card for a foul on Hector Bellerin when the result was more or less in the bag against Arsenal could yet have a significant impact on the Premier League title race.
Jose Mourinho’s side had executed a counter-attacking plan to perfection to lead 3-1 with thanks in large going to Pogba. Think of what he could do in a team that actually wanted the ball.
Here until his sending off Pogba was head and shoulders above any of his team-mates and anyone on the opposition for that matter; the outfield ones at least.
Mourinho cannot have planned for Arsenal having so many chances with 15 coming in the first half alone and 33 overall. This was not an expert rear-guard action; United were battered and are again indebted to Pogba and goalkeeper David De Gea for the points.
De Gea’s first-half saves from Alexandre Lacazette and his own colleague Romelu Lukaku off an Alexis Sanchez set-piece were stunning, as was his double-save from Lacazette and Sanchez after half-time.
It must have been so dispiriting for Arsenal to realise that even if they did manage to carve out that one clear chance De Gea was likely to repel it.
And only the Spaniard – perhaps – would represent a bigger loss than Pogba for the Manchester showdown next week.
United don’t have a replacement player capable of running a game or delaying the pass or influencing the team’s attack.
The €100-million man was at his best in creating the third goal – Jesse Lingard’s second of the evening. He looked like a man playing a boys’ game in holding off compatriot Laurent Koscielny with his skill and strength before picking out the England midfielder for a tap-in. His assuredness in possession had brought Antonio Valencia’s opener earlier in the game – a moment that had Arsenal fans fearing the very worst for their evening’s prospects.
Lingard, meanwhile, has repaid Mourinho’s faith in selecting him, finishing tidily for 2-0 after Anthony Martial’s deft flick around the corner. That should have been the end of Arsenal. United’s chance creation was infrequent but it was brilliant. There were numerous examples of how to construct a perfect counter-attack here even if the defending on both sides was dubious.
However, there are two players required for United to play like this and they will be without one of them for the game against Guardiola and Co. next week.
United have now played eight games with Pogba in the league this season and seven games without. When Pogba’s played they have won seven times and the other game was a freak draw at Stoke.
Without him they have won only four of seven with defeats to Huddersfield and Chelsea and a draw at Liverpool.
This was a big test for Mourinho’s side to overcome; his record away to the ‘big teams’ underwent a massive examination following that loss at Stamford Bridge and the presence of Pogba no doubt helped him overcome those deficiencies at the Emirates.
But through the midfielder’s mistimed challenge he has lost his services for the biggest game of all – albeit at Old Trafford.
United had a slim chance of snapping City’s successful streak at the start of this season even with Pogba in the reckoning, but without him it’s going to be mission impossible.