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Football Whispers

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Jose Mourinho and Manchester United buzzing over Paul Pogba return

Jose Mourinho didn't want to talk about Paul Pogba while the midfielder was injured in the way a jilted partner doesn't want to talk about an ex.

But back in the team against Newcastle, the Manchester United manager was happy to swoon.

"He effects our football," said Mourinho, after watching the Frenchman score one and make one in Saturday's 4-1 win against Rafael Benitez's side.

"When he was injured I decided to close my mouth. We cannot be crying, we have to find solutions that we have, but we all know -- myself, and the fellow players -- that some players influence the level of the team."

The translation is something along the lines of: "He makes us better and everyone knows it."

He is, of course, right. But the frightening thing at Old Trafford on Saturday was just how much better Pogba makes United.

In the six matches the 24-year-old has started this season, Mourinho's team have averaged 2.9 goals per game. In the 12 he missed, it drops to two.

When Pogba has played this season, United have created almost one-and-a-half more goal-scoring chances a game and have averaged nearly two more shots on goal.

Put simply, with him in the team they are more dangerous. When Pogba was struck down with a hamstring injury in mid-September, United were ahead of Manchester City on goal difference. By the time he returned, they were eight points adrift.

It is no wonder that after thrashing Newcastle, Mourinho talked of having to "protect" his key man. He doesn't want another painful break-up. Pogba is, as Mourinho would put it, untouchable.

Newcastle's midfield struggled to lay a glove on him, either. The stats show that by the time he went off with 20 minutes to go, he had touched the ball 81 times and made 64 passes.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. They don't show that, when United were struggling to find their rhythm in the first 30 minutes, he still wanted the ball.

They don't show that, when it looked like some of his teammates were starting to get frustrated at 1-0 down, he popped up on the right wing, tricked himself into a yard of space, and clipped in a cross for Anthony Martial to score the equaliser.

By half time, it was 2-1 and Newcastle were beaten. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's comeback got the biggest reception at the weekend, but it was Pogba who stole the show.

What Mourinho didn't want to acknowledge during the two months without him, is that Pogba can do things others cannot. He felt it a slight on those picked to replace him -- whether it was Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini or Scott McTominay.

It is, however, inescapable how much United rely on Pogba's invention from midfield.

Paul Pogba celebrates after scoring for Manchester United against Newcastle in the Premier League.
Manchester United struggled in Paul Pogba's absence but bounced back upon his return against Newcastle.

"With him we had much more creation," conceded Mourinho on Saturday night. Only he will know whether Pogba's absence forced a change in approach at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. We might find out when United play Arsenal at the Emirates on Dec. 2.

With Pogba -- and to a lesser extent Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo -- back in the team, the message from the manager and the players at the weekend was: "Don't write us off."

There is an acceptance that Manchester City are playing some of the best football the Premier League has ever seen and that it is generating results to match. Still, there was a feeling on Saturday that the starter's pistol has finally gone off on United's chase.

Ibrahimovic was asked after the game whether United were capable of hunting down Pep Guardiola's side.

Naturally he said yes, but it was noteworthy that he was keen to stress it is only now that Mourinho has all his key players fit at the same time.

For Mourinho, that will represent both a positive and a negative. It is positive that Pogba is back and United feel more confident they can catch City. But having your title hopes resting on the strength of a hamstring is not ideal.

For now, Mourinho can be happy that a difficult separation is over. He can only hope it stays that way.

Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.


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