After playing a starring role since his January arrival at Old Trafford, Bruno Fernandes has backed under-fire Paul Pogba to flourish… but can the duo actually play together in Manchester United’s midfield?
- Midfielder Paul Pogba has come in for criticism from Graeme Souness of late
- Bruno Fernandes stood up for his team-mate, who he is yet to play with Pogba
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must try and fit both into the Manchester United team
- Sportsmail looks at Solskjaer’s options for how to fit both in at Old Trafford
- Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID
Coronavirus has placed footballers, managers and clubs in limbo – but that is a state Paul Pogba, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United are used to being in regarding the future of the French midfielder.
So much so, that when Bruno Fernandes was signed from Sporting Lisbon in January, it was unclear whether he was arriving as a replacement for Pogba, or to play alongside him.
For the best part of two seasons, Pogba has been touted for a move to Real Madrid or back to Juventus by his agent Mino Raiola. The 27-year-old fell out with Jose Mourinho in 2018, and his successor Solskjaer has publicly questioned the player’s commitment as he struggles to recover from an ankle injury which has restricted him to just eight matches this season – the last of those coming on Boxing Day.
Paul Pogba has only played eight times this season and not since Boxing Day
Pogba’s future prospects – often aired publicly by Raiola – tend to be a barometer of United’s on-pitch health, and right now it seems most likely that he will stay given the improvement in their form in 2020 since the signing of Fernandes.
Transfer market uncertainty and his injury troubles are large factors in that forecast too, but the excellent form of Fernandes in his nine United matches to date cannot be ignored, with fans and perhaps even Pogba himself dreaming of a partnership between two of the best attacking midfielders in Europe.
While Pogba’s intentions are rarely clear and regularly change, Fernandes himself appears excited about the prospect of playing alongside him, and took time to stick up for his team-mate this week amid criticism from Graeme Souness.
‘The expectations are high for Paul, because Paul is a top player and Manchester United pay a lot for him,’ he said. ‘(But) this is confidence in Paul. The team, we have a lot of confidence in Paul.’
But just exactly how could the two fit into the same United side? It is a conundrum Solskjaer could well be faced with soon and one that, if he gets it right, could propel United towards title contention in future seasons.
Two United midfield greats have had their say on the potential tactical issues facing Solskjaer, who has thus far used Fernandes in a No 10 role in both a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond, and also as one of two No 10s in a 3-4-2-1.
Paul Scholes told The Mirror: ‘The one thing with Bruno is he doesn’t look like a central midfielder to me, he’s an out-and-out No 10.
‘He’s great on the ball, always on the half-turn and he’s the link that United really needed. They lacked that quality in midfield and since he came in he’s had that.
‘He can feed the ball in to players, he’s got a great shot on him and he looks like a real leader as well. United had lacked that.
Bruno Fernandes has been a revelation since joining Sporting Lisbon in January
‘Whether he can play in midfield in a two, that’s yet to be seen. He’s more like an Eric Cantona, a Teddy Sheringham – he can beat players as well.’
But Ryan Giggs sees the merits in playing Fernandes deeper, despite highlighting the defensive issues that would cause.
‘I think it might need a bit of working out what his best position is,’ Giggs told Premier League Productions.
‘With his back to goal, I don’t think that’s his position. When he’s a little bit deeper, defensively, he may be a bit of a liability. He’s in between the two really.’
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Despite his undoubted ability, this has long been the criticism of Pogba. He lacks the attacking instincts to be the ‘out-and-out No 10’ described by Scholes, but for many is also missing the defensive discipline to sit deep – despite the passing skills he would bring to that role.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to figure out how to fit Pogba and Fernandes into the same team
While the two do have different qualities – Pogba being more physical and Fernandes, the slightly more attacking of the two, relying more on his impeccable technique – their positional similarities add weight to the opinion that Fernandes was signed to replace Pogba.
Indeed, Sportsmail has reported that United would cut their losses on Pogba this summer should the right offer come in and sign a different type of midfielder in the shape of Saul Niguez or Donny van de Beek – both renowned for their industrious natures.
But Pogba and Fernandes could operate together – and Solskjaer needn’t look far for an example of how to do it.
Across Manchester, at the Etihad Stadium, the key tactical innovation that helped Pep Guardiola win his first Premier League title was to deploy Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva as twin No 8s – when his predecessor Manuel Pellegrini had been using one or both out wide – with Fernandinho mopping up behind them in a defensive role.
Solskjaer’s best bet for the Fernandinho role in this system would be Scott McTominay, with a resurgent Nemanja Matic, who has recently signed a new deal, pushing him for a start. This would be harsh on Fred, who has enjoyed a fine season, but to start him behind Pogba and Fernandes would leave the midfield desperately short of defensive nous.
Scott McTominay would be United’s best bet in the holding role in a 4-3-3 formation
A switch to a 4-3-3 might be a long-term solution should Pogba stay, though United would have to improve the forward areas by bringing in at least one top class player to challenge Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James for a starting spot.
While those attacking options remain limited, with only Mason Greenwood, Odion Ighalo and Jesse Lingard in reserve, Solskjaer may be more inclined to used the 4-4-2 diamond and the 3-4-2-1 which we have seen in United’s two most recent matches – the draw at Everton and the win over City.
In the 4-4-2 diamond, Fernandes would remain as the No 10, with Pogba slotting in on the left to leave Fred, McTominay and Matic competing for the other two spots.
In the 3-4-2-1, Solskjaer could either flood the midfield by using Pogba as a second No 10 with two from Fred, McTominay and Matic sitting deep, or use Pogba in one of the deeper roles to free up a spot for either James or Martial up top.
A 4-2-3-1, not used by Solskjaer since a 3-0 win over Watford in February, represents more of a risk with Pogba asked to sit deep, exposing both his defensive issues and United’s lack of options out wide. But it is an option at home to smaller clubs.
The best case scenario for United would be if Pogba forms part of the 4-4-2 diamond or 3-4-2-1 for the rest of the season, then eventually moves into a 4-3-3 alongside Fernandes as one of two No 8s once United sign a winger and a striker, with England stars Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane top of their wishlist.
How United could line up if Pogba stays and they sign Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane