It did not feel like a mistake at the time, because of what had gone before, but it was a mistake nonetheless.
It was entirely understandable that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer chose Fred to replace Paul Pogba when the Frenchman felt a twinge in his thigh muscle against Everton last Saturday.
This was simply the Manchester United manager reverting to type, by calling upon an underrated and reliable player to play in Pogba’s key role, as he had done dozens of times with Fred in the past.
It was Fred and his usual partner in crime Scott McTominay who were picked to anchor United’s midfield amid a maelstrom of issues, mostly defensive, earlier in this season. It was Fred and McTominay who started in a vital game away at Newcastle in October that United had to win —and did, with style — following a terrible start to the campaign. It was again the same duo that started away at Everton in November when Solskjaer was under intense scrutiny and Mauricio Pochettino was the name on many fans’ lips.
United won that game 3-1 and Solskjaer had all the proof he needed that ‘McFred’, as some fans affectionately dub them, should start behind Bruno Fernandes when required.
But lots happened between that 3-1 win at Everton, and the reverse fixture against Carlo Ancelotti’s side on February 6th. United lost just one league game in that time, a shock 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United. They largely rediscovered their attacking swagger and Pogba started to play a vital role in midfield.
The man who inspired France to World Cup glory in 2018 is almost without comparison as a footballer. Few blend his physical qualities with such vision and skill on the ball, though few can frustrate as much as him.
Yet for all the bluster that comes from his agent Mino Raiola and despite expectations Pogba will leave United in the summer, Solskjaer got a serious tune from his No.6 between December and earlier this month.
Fred has many qualities, but to replace Pogba with the more industrious and defensive Brazilian when United were 1-0 up against Everton was not the right call from Solskjaer — for a multitude of reasons — and control of the game was squandered.
Solskjaer had initially deemed the home game against the Toffees as applicable to play Pogba alongside one of United’s three holding midfielders, Scott McTominay. Just as he’d done versus Fulham (Fred and Pogba) and Burnley (Nemanja Matic and Pogba), the United manager was asserting his control over the game with such a selection.
Fred and McTominay are the pairing Solskjaer picks when he wants resilience and fighting spirit. Not when he wants creative passing and lock-pickers in his midfield.
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Manchester United beat West Ham 1-0 in the FA Cup, thanks to Scott McTominay’s extra-time winner.
United sealed a spot in the cup quarter-finals with victory over David Moyes’ side at Old Trafford, and now they travel to West Brom in the league on Sunday.
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So the fact the duo have been picked in successive — and eminently winnable — home games against Everton and West Ham during Pogba’s absence, reflects how much the injured man is being missed. The dynamic is different without him.
It also reflects Solskjaer’s mistrust of Donny van de Beek in a deeper midfield role. The Dutchman would surely be the like-for-like replacement for Pogba if he was full of confidence right now — and if Solskjaer had confidence in him.
So United have a problem for as long as Pogba is sidelined, and one that may re-occur if and when he departs in the summer.
Thankfully for them, the prognosis on Pogba’s injury is fairly positive – out for “a few weeks” according to Solskjaer – though he could recover by the end of the month.
United should use that time to solve the issue of playing a more aggressive and forward-thinking midfielder who isn’t Pogba, alongside one of Fred, Matic or McTominay.
During his absence they must find a balance between invention and industry in the engine room.