Three ways Solskjaer can fit Pogba and Fernandes into Man Utd’s starting line-up
Paul Pogba is close to a return with Manchester United.
The Frenchman has not featured at all for the Red Devils since a couple of mid-season cameos off the bench, the last of which was on Boxing Day. The last time he was fully fit for United was back in August. Ankle problems have dogged his season ever since and he’s managed just eight appearances in all competitions.
But he was edging towards a comeback before the Premier League was suspended because of the Coronavirus pandemic. That means when the crisis is over, he’ll likely be ready to come back into the fold and United will be able to play him alongside Bruno Fernandes, the Portuguese playmaker who has rapidly become their best player since joining in January from Sporting Portugal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is excited at the prospect of these two teaming up. “We want the best players on the pitch together,” the Norwegian said recently. “It sounds exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
Two talents like Pogba and Fernandes linking up does sound exciting, but how would it work? We’ve had a look and come up with three line-ups that will accommodate both Fernandes and Pogba.
United are playing a 4-2-3-1 system by default this season. It’s providing them with great defensive stability and a powerful offensive capacity. Fred and Scott McTominay have proven to be a brilliant double-pivot, so there’s no need to break that duo up to bring Pogba back into the side so the simple solution is to plug him in further forward.
With Fernandes working so well as the no. 10, linking with everyone and facilitating some beautiful play, Pogba could plug in on the left of the attacking three. This role is ostensibly on the “wing” but in reality for United whoever plays there makes outside-to-in runs and tries to threaten goal.
This is very similar to the role Pogba played when he broke through after joining Juventus, and it would enable him to receive the ball in space facing the goal and able to cut in on his right-foot. It would allow him total offensive freedom as United’s two left-backs are primarily defenders so won’t get in his space, and with Fernandes available for wall-passes as well as Dan James offering direct play on the opposite flank there is so much potential to get Pogba into dangerous goalscoring situations.
Of course United may want to up the ante and actually play with some serious attacking verve whilst also developing a formation that they can keep playing once Marcus Rashford returns from his back injury. To that end, they will have to scrap 4-2-3-1 in order to put Pogba back into midfield next to Fernandes, meaning there will only be a single pivot.
McTominay, a resurgent Nemanja Matic or Fred would be tasked with holding midfield, and with Rashford (or Anthony Martial until he returns, with the striker’s role currently being occupied by United’s other winter window wonder Odion Ighalo) and James out wide providing pace and vertical thrust in attack, defences would be pushed back.
This in turn would open up the space needed for Fernandes and Pogba to play side-by-side. They would share playmaking duties and combine to make sure that United couldn’t effectively be stopped by an opponent marking one of them. They are both perceptive passes and deadly shooters from range, meaning that defenders would have to close out on both whilst knowing that if they do, they open up passing lanes behind them.
Having to handle that for both men would be hard enough but when you factor in Pogba’s obscene ability to run with the ball then you have a midfield duo who will utterly destroy opponents who push up high (allowing United to remain a deadly transition team) whilst also picking apart teams that sit deep. Both men are also capable defenders if need be, so they could even take it in turns to “go” if the opponent is someone particularly dangerous.
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Big Game Ballista
United have destroyed big teams this season playing a 3-5-2 formation that covers the field defensively, blocking opponents off out-wide and funnelling them into midfield where they are then smothered.
How do you put Pogba and Fernandes into this shape? Well Fernandes retains a role in attack next to Martial. With the Frenchman providing direct threat, Fernandes is free to push into the box and score but also function as a link-man for midfield.
That link will be crucial. Fernandes’ ability to play first-time passes and flicks into space releasing a running team-mate will become so deadly when that team-mate is Pogba. The Frenchman would play initially as one of the midfield three, but just as he did at Juventus he would have license to drive forward into space.
With United sitting deep and absorbing pressure, Pogba’s ability to explode from deep with the ball at his feet would make United’s counter-attacking level up a couple notches.
Pogba’s outlet passes would find Fernandes who would obviously draw pressure and then release it back to Pogba who by now is in full stride in the open field and you have to remember that Pogba is basically like the Dothraki: you can’t beat him in the open field. So United’s big-game ballista would somehow become even deadlier.