In a one-sided night of football, Manchester United thrashed Brighton 0-3 at the Amex Arena.
The Red Devils came into the match at the Amex off the back of a 120 slugfest against Norwch, but they overcame all of that fatigue thanks to an exhilarating hour of football that saw Bruno Fernandes take centre-stage.
For the longest time, Manchester United’s midfield has been Paul Pogba + 1 (or +2). It’s never managed to gel and the standard was so low that when Fred and Scott McTominay managed to be basically competent earlier in the season during Pogba’s injury absence, they were praised to the hilt.
The introduction of Bruno Fernandes, however, has changed everything. The Portuguese made his team-mates play better with his ability to push the tempo and link with everyone. The big question was how would he work alongside Paul Pogba when the Frenchman returned? The speculation was that playing the pair together wouldn’t work as they would both want the ball or not defend or whatever.
The game at the Amex showed that not only can Pogba and Fernandes play together, but they can thrive together. Playing in a three with Nemanja Matic doing the defensive dirty work, the pair absolutely bossed the game.
It turns out, their skill-sets are quite complimentary. Pogba, a player who enjoys starting from deep with the freedom to run into the final third has so often had to play higher up the pitch because United have always lacked a presence in the final third.
Well, with Fernandes there, Pogba can trust his Portuguese team-mate and does, indeed, start moves deeper and is thus able to move forwards into spaces rather than constantly having to beat men off the dribble.
This inevitably allows the Frenchman to be more free, and when you consider Fernandes’ willingness to run off the ball into spaces, or to hang back when Pogba pushes forward and always provide a recipient for passes, it’s easy to see why United so dominated Brighton. Pogba likes to play killer balls, but only when he feels the moment is right. Prior to Fernandes’ arrival, he always had to force it. Now with Fernandes around, Pogba can pick and choose his moments.
United’s second goal at the Amex was a perfect example of just that. With Pogba high in the right half-space, Fernandes played off him in space. Pogba found his teammate and without hesitation, the Portuguese smashed a goal in (via a deflection). 0-2, and this was the second time they tried this move in the match, so it’s clearly a move they want to perfect and they just about did it.
Then in the second-half, with Brighton attacking and Pogba dropping back into defence to track his man, Fernandes stayed upfield. Pogba often shirked his defensive duties, but how much of that was down to knowing that if he was deep, the team has no attacking threat? Again, the trust in Fernandes changes everything.
So less than five minutes into the second half, Pogba is in line with his centre-backs and then, when the ball is cleared and worked out to Mason Greenwood on the left, and the forward is advancing into the final third and looks up for a crossing option, who does he see at the back-post? Who do you think?
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford make excellent near-post runs to clear out the space for Bruno Fernandes around the back. The Portuguese is open, Greenwood picks him out, and Fernandes buries it into the back of the net, 0-3, game over.
Soon after, Pogba and Fernandes are both subbed off. Wrapped in cotton wool as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer eyes the upcoming fixtures and makes sure his creative engine is kept as healthy as possible.
Paul Pogba has always been a genius, but United have never found a way to properly unleash him. Excuses were made, some valid and some not. But it turns out the answer to “fixing” Pogba at United was to pair him with a midfielder of similar quality. Bruno Fernandes has performed an impressive hat-trick of playing well himself, making United play well as a team and getting Paul Pogba purring.
The Red Devils have always been able to counter-attack sides, but that they scored such a beautiful counter goal as well as the kind of goal like their second where they picked a packed defence open with a good bit of play is the kind of versatility that could stand Solskjaer’s side in good stead. With the phenomenal Pogba and the fabulous Fernandes playing together the Premier League must now deal with an unstoppable United.