The disruption in March to the Premier League season came at the worst possible time for Manchester United. They had just built up a head of steam over the previous six weeks which culminated in the glorious defeat of the current champions, Manchester City. When United thumped LASK in the Europa League a few days later, they had gone eleven games unbeaten in all competitions and were arguably the form team in England.
A lot of the upturn in fortunes after a middling first half of the campaign could be attributed to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon. The Portuguese midfielder has made ten appearances in all competitions since debuting against Wolves on the first of February, with the Red Devils winning six and drawing four of those fixtures. He has reveled in the role of a number ten and added attacking impetus to a side that has struggled to build up play all season. With three goals and four assists in just 666 minutes of action before Friday’s game against Spurs, he had embraced the responsibility of being United’s main man in the absence of Paul Pogba.
The Frenchman has cut a distracted figure for a long time now with transfer speculation intensifying around him with every passing window. He has also rarely been seen on the football field with a foot injury restricting him to only three appearances since September. He had not exactly set the world on fire before that, failing to build on a promising 2018-19 season. All indications hinted at an exit this summer but COVID-19 has complicated all calculations and there is a strong possibility that the World Cup winner might actually stay at the club.
A fully fit and focused Pogba would be an asset to most sides and if he meets these criteria, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to figure out a way of integrating him into the side. This is easier said than done. A much-reviled midfield have stepped up to the plate in the absence of Pogba with Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic growing in confidence in the middle of the park.
While Fernandes’ creative spark reignited United’s top-four aspirations, it must not be forgotten that United have looked defensively solid throughout the campaign. The protection offered to the defence by these three players whenever they have played has contributed massively to this. In the twelve-game unbeaten run they currently are on, they have only shipped in three goals.
This is where Solskjaer’s dilemma would lie. His preferred 4-2-3-1 or the 3-4-1-2 he has employed against strong opposition relies on two deep lying midfielders prepared to do the grunt work in the middle of the park. This role has been fulfilled by Fred and one of McTominay or Matic. With Fernandes now a non-negotiable starter, will the Norwegian be willing to change something that is working to accommodate Pogba in that midfield?
Pogba made an immediate impact when he came on late against Spurs. He won the penalty that led to United’s equalizer. It must be taken into consideration, however, that the opposition were tiring visibly and Solskjaer’s men were taking positional liberties in search of a goal. The manager hinted at a possible dilemma in his post-match comments when he spoke about trying to incorporate his best players into the team while finding a balance to the sides he puts out on match-days.
One possible formation that could work is a 4-1-2-1-2 with Fernandes at the tip of a diamond with Pogba on the left or right side of a midfield three. He played those positions to good effect at Juventus under Massimiliano Allegri’s tutelage and it is a system Solskjaer has used before, most notably in the 1-1 draw with Everton early in March. Of course, the regista at United will not be quite of the same caliber as an Andrea Pirlo but this may be the best way to fit the Frenchman and Fernandes into the side. A 4-2-2-2 is an option as well but that system may not necessarily play into the strengths of the players currently at United.
The good news for Solskjaer is that his team do not have many testing fixtures left in this Premier League campaign. The game against Leicester on the last day of the season will probably be the toughest of the lot. This allows him to bed Pogba into the side and experiment with various formations.
If Pogba and Fernandes click well together, the Red Devils could become a major force next season if suitable additions are made to the rest of squad. If he disappears in games and shirks his defensive responsibilities, as he is wont to do at times, the Manchester United hierarchy will have a decision to make this summer. There aren’t many teams in the world that can afford to carry £90 million players in their roster without starting them every week.