Like him or not, it seems Paul Pogba is here to stay for the long haul. And whether you realise or not, it leaves United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a rather large sized headache when action eventually resumes, with a surprising wealth of midfield options appearing from thin air.
Scott McTominay, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Bruno Fernandes and now Paul Pogba all to squeeze into a three (without even considering those on the periphery like James Garner) and, barring the injury-plagued Pogba, all looking in excellent form there is a decision or two to make for the run-in.
Usually when talking about the midfield at Manchester United, it is to bemoan the lack of quality, the lack of choices at the manager’s disposal, so it is refreshing to have the problem be ‘who to choose’ as opposed to the negative aspect of the argument.
It isn’t as cut and dry as it seems, there are obvious factors in favour of Fernandes – he’s come seemingly ready made for English football and has added some much needed X Factor to the side – and Pogba – arguably the most talented of the midfielders who has it in his locker to turn games in United’s favour and can be a leader in the middle – which appear to make them seem undroppable. Matic is advancing in years and looked dead and buried, but a resurgence in the weeks leading up to the break make him a viable option. Fred was poor last season by his own admission, but has been exemplary this season. McTominay may not have the ability of his midfield counterparts, but his work rate and desire have endeared him to fans and the manager. A combination seems impossible.
Before lockdown, and post New-Year, the trio’s involving Bruno Fernandes and Fred (who have played together 8 times since the arrival of our Portuguese Magnifico in January) remained unbeaten. They only failed to win twice, and a draw against Club Brugges away involved neither from the start. Bruno chipped in with 4 goals and 3 assists, Fred helping the cause by breaking up play, and breaking the lines with his passing with alarming regularity. Fred is also the most used midfielder, followed up by McTominay, and where he lacks defensively, he has passed through the lines successfully 3.4 times a game on average, once in the defensive third, 1.6 times in the middle and 0.9 in the attacking third. He’s second only to Matic but with much more game time.
McTominay has also looked assured this season, he has popped up with goals against Arsenal and Manchester City, as well as providing the defensive grit that Fred lacks. He obviously has the years on Matic, and with him winning 2.3 aerial battles per game, as well as winning more fouls per game than his counterparts, McTominay is the balanced option to complement the other 2 he is playing with. Plus, he has a 12-pack now somehow. Nemanja Matic leads the way for effectiveness in his appearances this season, but has played less than 50% of games so far and is quickly approaching retirement. He has enjoyed an Indian Summer, but long term it is very likely he will move on, which brings us nicely onto Paul Pogba.
To go into every detail of Pogba’s antics would take much too long. Off the field, there aren’t many cases you can make to warrant him earning a place in the starting XI any time soon, so we must look beyond that and somewhat objectively if a case is to be built. It is quite the turn around that a lot of fans are warming to the idea of him playing, and it has been spurred on by the addition of Fernandes to the ranks. Many argued (including Mino Raiola) that surrounding him with better players would yield a better Pogba, and a look to his stats for France and Juventus back that up. 178 games for The Old Lady resulted in 34 goals and 40 assists. 69 international caps have produced 10 goals and 7 assists. He was making more tackles per game than he does now (highs of 2.5 and 2.4 per game at Juve and France respectively, compared to just 1.4 at United), his highest dribbles per game at Juve was 3.1, United its 2.8, and at Old Trafford he is playing substantially more long balls than ever before. Fernandes arriving takes the creative strain off Pogba, a more defensive minded player takes that away too, it allows Pogba the freedom he has thrived in in better surroundings.
There’s no easy option, you would have to say Fernandes is guaranteed and wouldn’t receive much argument there, and on the evidence from pre-lockdown it would be unfair for one of McTominay or Fred to be omitted for Pogba for several reasons – not least the fact that Fred is a mainstay and seems to have a good relationship with Fernandes. McTominay offers a more stable defensive base, and the Fernandes-McTominay-Fred trio is the perfect balance (as has been proven in games gone by) for the side where each player’s role compliments the needs of the side. Preference is towards balance, but then in the back of your mind there’s the desire to see if the stories are true.
Pogba and Fernandes together could be sensational. Whomever partners them simply a matter of sizing up the opponents, Fred for games United should dominate, McTominay for those where a grittier approach is necessary. Unfair on the others, mesmeric for fans. For me, that’s it, the combination to unlock all based solely on the hopes that the one game Pogba was World Class (the 3-2 derby win) can be recreated every week simply because of Bruno Fernandes. It is a long shot, I know, but it might just save us all another 12 months of speculation and tantrums.