FootballCritic's Paul Macdonald looks at the systems Manchester United might opt for to get the best from both Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
Back in the pre-coronavirus world, Pogba had made just six Premier League appearances all season and hadn’t featured at all since a Boxing Day win against Newcastle. He has suffered persistent injuries but has consistently flirted with an exit knowing that Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid would welcome him.
Solskjaer always insisted that the French World Cup winner remained part of his plans - he would, of course, knowing saying anything else could drive the sale price down - but the move to bring in Bruno Fernandes from Sporting in January seemed to be a clear indication that life after Pogba was being prepared for.
Now, everything has changed and Ole has to consider a system that could accommodate both men, at least in the short term. And it’s not an easy decision to make; since Fernandes’ arrival United appear to be discovering a structure and a style after featuring for some time without much of a hint of either.
United are now 10 games unbeaten in all competitions since his introduction into the team, fitting perfectly into a gap that was made for him. He has five goals and four assists in that period (granted, three were penalties) but it’s not just the extra attacking prowess he provides a team crying out for it; he’s made life more straightforward for the players behind him, too. Scott McTominay and the revitalised and under-appreciated Fred are now the preferred double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation, both happy to sit and allow Fernandes to do his thing.
And now we throw Pogba back into a scenario that was largely resolved. But he’s such an important (and expensive) figure that with both men fit, there’s just no way Ole will look to rotate. We will assume both can, and will, play. But given the talents of both men, there’s no real reason - at least in footballing terms - why it shouldn’t work.
Fernandes featured prominently in his AMC position towards the end of his Sporting career but also played in central midfield, too. Pogba meanwhile regularly featured on the left of a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2 at Juventus as part of the central three. Both give Solskjaer options, particularly the latter given the Norwegian has enjoyed 3-5-2 in key matches, not least in some excellent defeats of Manchester City.
2017/18 was the most productive of Pogba’s career in terms of goals and assists but penalties were helping to pad those numbers somewhat. 0.43 non-penalty contributions P90 that season, and that total is beaten by 0.48 NPG P90 in his last season at Juventus under Massimiliano Allegri.
He featured predominantly in a 3-5-2 that season, making 49 appearances as a varied supporting cast operated in a team built around his talents, but did feature more naturally attacking players such as Hernanes or Claudio Marchisio. Pogba was able to remain disciplined in such a structure whilst also contribute massively to the team’s offensive success.
Likewise, with Fernandes’ understanding of how to play deeper and what that position entails, the dynamic is one that could prosper. Former Sporting coach Carlos Carvajal referred to the Portuguese as "a No. 8, not a No. 10" and referenced his ability to understand and react to losing the ball. In either a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3 or even with either operating as a more dynamic option in the double pivot of a 4-2-3-1, two smart, immensely gifted footballers can co-exist given their history of the position.
Fernandes has already expressed his desire to play with Pogba and we’ve already been granted a brief cameo of what could be to come in the last half an hour against Tottenham. Pogba came off the bench and United immediately looked a more dangerous proposition. He seemed to begin from the right but then dropped deeper to dictate the play as United sought out a winner, utilising the pace of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood on either side.
Fernandes, meanwhile, slotted home the penalty that Pogba had won and United, having won the Expected Goals battle convincingly (1.8 to 0.5) will feel they should have clinched the points in that closing spell.
It will depend on the opponent and how conservative Solskjaer wants to be in big games against all-round superior sides. But given the flexibility of both players, coupled with their game intelligence, and if we leave externalities such as injury or ego aside, there’s really no reason why Fernandes, Pogba and nine others isn’t an exciting vision.
If in the next six weeks it bears fruit and grants the club a return to the Champions League - something that could persuade Pogba to stay and, crucially, convince Jadon Sancho to come, that could be something really special.
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