It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Manchester United perform better when both Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are in the side.
After all, the club spent the thick end of £150million on the pair, believing they would provide a world class midfield and help United challenge for the biggest prizes once again.
Slowly but surely they are progressing towards that point under Ola Gunnar Solskjaer but the need for refinement obviously remains.
Manchester United do generally play well when Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes both play
Two of United’s most expensive signings have struck up a good rapport on and off the pitch
United legend Paul Scholes wants to see more of Pogba and Fernandes working in tandem
That’s why former United midfielder Paul Scholes was so outspoken on Thursday night about the urgent need to get United’s ‘cleverest’ creative forces – Pogba and Fernandes – working in tandem.
Speaking on BT Sport after United cruised past Granada to set up a Europa League semi-final against Roma, Scholes outlined what he would do.
‘Solskjaer likes the two sitting players, I don’t think there’s a need for both of them, they need to get Pogba in a linking role with Bruno. If they do, it frees up another position for a forward player.
‘The awareness and cleverness they both have allowed each other to link up. United’s two cleverest players are Fernandes and Pogba so if you can get them close together, they’ll score a lot and provide goals for others too.
‘If they have a more dominant centre back, they could have a more attacking midfield.
‘A lot of the time, United miss that attacking, flowing play. I think Pogba could bring that with Fernandes. If you get him in there, it frees up the left for Rashford, there’s no way you’d want to play against that.’
It does cause a dilemma for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who wants his team balanced
The danger is that pushing Pogba and Fernandes closer together leaves United exposed
It’s worth noting that Pogba was stationed on the left side of United’s attack in the 2-0 win at Old Trafford, allowing Rashford a night off as he manages a foot injury. It was the same in Sunday’s 3-1 win at Tottenham.
But Scholes is broadly correct. When Pogba and Fernandes are able to combine, United are generally a more devastating attacking force and they do win matches.
Solskjaer’s side have won 18 of the 30 matches in which he has started Pogba and Fernandes together in the 15 months since the Portuguese star arrived. They have drawn six and lost six.
There have been two purple patches in particular. One was the set of Premier League matches immediately after the Premier League’s post-Covid restart last summer when the duo played together for the first time after Pogba returned from a long-term ankle injury.
And the second was the period at the beginning of this year when United’s form appeared, albeit only briefly, to suggest they could challenge Manchester City for the title.
It’s no coincidence that United dropped six points out of 12 available in the four league matches after Pogba limped out of their 3-3 draw with Everton in early February with a hamstring injury.
We’ve seen more than enough to suggest this is a blossoming partnership that could lead United to success, assuming that the French midfielder, who is out of contract in 2022, remains at Old Trafford beyond the summer.
Fernandes predicted as much as soon as he arrived from Sporting Lisbon in January last year, recalling how the pair hatched plans while speaking in Italian as Pogba was on the treatment table.
Solskjaer knows this but the challenge, as Scholes alludes to, is fitting them both into a midfield without making United too exposed defensively.
Pogba (left) and Fernandes (right) started working out how best to play together as soon as the Portuguese star arrived at Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon in January last year
United made light work of Granada to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League
Pogba simply isn’t going to do the 90-minute defensive screening role of a Fred, Nemanja Matic or Scott McTominay because it curbs his creative instincts too much.
In the past, Solskjaer has adapted his usual 4-2-3-1 into a midfield diamond shape to accommodate both Pogba and Fernandes but also two holding players.
The manager has rightly come in for criticism for setting up too conservatively in certain games.
He went with both McTominay and Fred in February’s game against basement dwellers West Bromwich Albion, a 1-1 draw. But it could easily have been a different story had Pogba been fit.
The goalless league draw at Crystal Palace and the extra time FA Cup win over West Ham also saw this belt and braces approach which stifled United’s creativity but, in Pogba’s absence, Solskjaer probably saw little alternative.
Scott McTominay is able to put in a hard-running shift as United’s holding midfielder
Midfielder Fred scored against Tottenham last weekend but some still doubt his abilities
Nemanja Matic is United’s other deep midfield option and he played against Granada
These are the matches Scholes was probably thinking of and in terms of United’s diminishing title hopes, Pogba’s injury couldn’t have been worse timed given his fine form.
Since Pogba came back, United have beaten Brighton and Tottenham in the league and made light work of Granada in Europe with both him and Fernandes in the team from the start.
Indeed, Thursday night’s second leg was so comfortable after Pogba had teed up Edinson Cavani for an early opener, Solskjaer could afford the luxury of removing the midfielder at half-time to avoid him picking up a second yellow card.
But one common theme of the midfield conundrum that Solskjaer has grappled with all season is that Pogba’s attack-minded approach does sometimes leave United worryingly exposed.
It can’t be expected that the 32-year-old Matic or the Duracell bunny McTominay can do all the shielding work alone, while Fred is never likely to convince every United fan he deserves to wear the red shirt.
So Scholes’s point about a more dominant centre back is certainly valid. We know Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof can be leaden-footed though they do have a good understanding now as a pairing.
United undoubtedly need a more mobile and sharp centre back option to compliment Maguire’s authority in the air and in the tackle.
Someone able to step out quickly and read developing situations could indeed offer ample cover for one less holding midfielder.
Bringing one in will be easier said than done and with United also in need of a centre forward, you do wonder where summer market priorities will lie.
Victor Lindelof (left) and Harry Maguire have been United’s regular centre back partnership
United will be desperate to overcome the disappointment of losing to Sevilla last season and get into the Europa League final this time around – they face Serie A side Roma in the last four
There is also talk of a better holding midfielder coming in, such as West Ham’s Declan Rice, which would also offer a solution.
The one thing Pogba and Fernandes need to do first is guide United to a final. They started together in last season’s Europa League semi-final loss to Sevilla and the 2-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Manchester City this season.
The fact the tie with Roma is over two legs will help and it will be a major psychological hurdle cleared if Solskjaer’s United can reach the final in Gdansk on May 26.
Rashford’s injury absence has offered a short-term solution but until Solskjaer gets that defensive cover, it’s a risk to get Pogba and Fernandes playing fully in tandem as Scholes would like.
Whether it prevents them winning the first silverware of Solskjaer’s reign remains to be seen.