It was such a wrench for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to omit one of Manchester United’s four specialist midfielders against Everton in March he picked all of them.
Daniel James was admittedly injured, which gave Solskjaer leverage to experiment with a diamond formation that trialled Bruno Fernandes at the apex. Nemanja Matic, at the base, rolled the ball to Fernandes for him to lash in his first Premier League goal and the duo were United’s standout performers.
United have since triggered the extension in Matic’s contract and are in discussions about a renewal. Fernandes is the most popular Portuguese in Manchester since Cristiano Ronaldo, another Iberian whom remonstrated with Pep Guardiola on the touchline.
Fernandes and Paul Pogba arrived at identical times for group training on Thursday and starry-eyed fans are desperate to see them photographed together. The pictures from Wednesday’s session were not captured by an official club photographer or uploaded into the Getty system as United continue to limit staff on the premises.
Pogba uploaded footage of him doing ball-work shortly before the UK lockdown was enforced and on Wednesday he was filmed dribbling between cones in United training regalia. Pogba and Fernandes arrived five minutes apart on Thursday morning ahead of the morning group sessions but a snapshot of them arm-in-arm is a while off.
The night before the Premier League belatedly suspended the season in March, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doubted whether Pogba would travel to London for the meeting with Tottenham.
“I wouldn’t think Paul is ready, no,” Solskjaer claimed. “He’s trained today and he’ll train tomorrow (Friday) but I don’t think he’s had enough training sessions with the team. I had a nice conversation with him the other day and I don’t think he’d be against it if I asked him.”
With Solskjaer’s injury bulletins, most have come to expect the opposite to what he says. His revised estimations of Pogba’s return date became so embarrassing Solskjaer did not sound like he knew what he was talking about and he may never perfect the delivery of deception like Sir Alex Ferguson did.
Solskjaer squirmed when challenged on the sudden recovery of David de Gea for the Liverpool match in October at his post-match press conference. Jose Mourinho was totally transparent with injuries.
United supporters can be heartened by the probable restart of the Premier League next month and the possibility of Fernandes and Pogba collaborating together for the first time. “We want the best players on the pitch together,” Solskjaer said in Linz over two months ago. “It sounds exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
With Mino Raiola becoming desperate after a glitch in his Adjustment Bureau career path for Pogba, Solskjaer is preparing to have Pogba and Fernandes in the same squad for a year rather than mere months. The United midfielders were back at Carrington before the manager, who arrived at 1pm on Thursday after dialling into web meetings on Wednesday.
Solskjaer could feasibly accommodate Fernandes and Pogba in four formations, depending on United’s opponent. United have favoured a back three against the top four; beating Manchester City twice, Chelsea twice and denying Liverpool. Pogba was absent for all five fixtures Fernandes assisted goals from set-pieces against City and Chelsea.
Pogba occupied a deeper role in pre-season in a 4-2-3-1 with Scott McTominay joining him in the midfield axis. Solskjaer’s attempt to harness Pogba’s World Cup influence alongside N’Golo Kante barely got off the ground and his August was blemished by penalty selfishness at Wolves and injury at Southampton, the source of his ankle woe.
Fernandes has slotted into the 4-2-3-1 in the league and cups as the 10 behind Anthony Martial or Odion Ighalo, and United strolled to wins over Watford, Club Brugge, Derby, and LASK Linz with Ighalo a scorer in the three he started in. Fernandes played behind the split striker duo of Martial and Daniel James against Chelsea and City, backed up by Matic and Fred.
Fred edged out Marcus Rashford in a recent United player of the year poll and Matic is the sole defensive midfield specialist United possess. McTominay, attack-minded by trade, showed he is eminently capable of holding the fort before he left Old Trafford on crutches on Boxing Day.
When Solskjaer sat down with us in Perth back in July, the club had just balked at the £50million valuation of Sean Longstaff and Andreas Pereira was named as a midfielder to offset the departure of Ander Herrera. Now Pereira is no longer worthy of mention.
“Good players can always play together,” Solskjaer stressed this month. “So definitely, it’s a big yes [that Pogba and Fernandes can play together]. But I’ve also got Scott, Fred, Nemanja. You’ve got three players there as well, and you can’t just play with midfielders either.
“But there are many games coming up and I’m sure we can find a good connection between them, and we’ve been discussing that as a coaching team and are looking forward to it.”
Pogba was a fish out of water as the playmaker at Liverpool and Chelsea in October 2016 and has seldom started off the striker since. Fernandes is more adept higher up the pitch and if Solskjaer reintroduced the diamond Pogba would likely be on the left with Fernandes ahead of him. Then the two best players would be playing in their best position.
Solskjaer elicited the finest form of Pogba’s career by placing him on the left of a midfield triumvirate during the caretaker spell, with Matic holding and Herrera mucking in; sparing Pogba of defensive responsibilities. In a diamond, whoever the holder and right-sided players are, they would be tasked with shielding the back four to leave at least one of Pogba and Fernandes free, if not both.
Omitting one of them will be a wrench.