In fact, it should come as no surprise that Manchester United are performing better with both Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba on the side.
After all, the club spent the chunk of £ 150m on the pair, believing they would provide a world-class midfield and help United once again challenge for the biggest of prizes.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer they slowly but surely get to that point, but the need for refinement of course remains.
Manchester United generally play well when both Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes play
Two of United’s most expensive additions have earned good reputations both on and off the field
United legend Paul Scholes wants to see more of Pogba and Fernandes work together
That’s why former United midfielder Paul Scholes was so forthright on Thursday night about the urgent need to get United’s ‘brightest’ creative forces – Pogba and Fernandes – to work.
Speak on BT Sport after United drove past Granada to set up a Europa League semi-final against Roma, Scholes outlined what he would do.
‘Solskjaer loves the two sitting players, I don’t think they need both, they need to get Pogba in a connecting role with Bruno. Doing so will open up another position for an attacker.
‘The consciousness and the cleverness that have made them both connect. United’s two brightest players are Fernandes and Pogba, so if you can get them close together they will score a lot and take care of others too.
‘If they have a more dominant mid-back, they can have a more offensive midfield.
‘United often misses that attacking, fluid play. I think Pogba can bring that up with Fernandes. If you get him in it will free up Rashford left, you wouldn’t want to play against that. ‘
It poses a dilemma for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who wants to keep his team in balance
The danger is that if you push Pogba and Fernandes closer together, United will be exposed
MAN UNITED RECORD WHEN POGBA AND FERNANDES BEGIN
7 wins, 2 draws, 1 defeat
70 percent profit ratio
11 wins, 4 draws, 5 defeats
55 percent profit ratio
18 wins, 6 draws, 6 defeats
60 percent profit ratio
It’s worth noting that Pogba was stationed to the left of United’s attack in the 2-0 win at Old Trafford, leaving Rashford a night off for sustaining a foot injury. It was the same in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Tottenham.
But Scholes is broadly right. When Pogba and Fernandes can combine, United are generally a more devastating offensive force and win games.
Solskjaer’s squad have won 18 of the 30 races in which he has started Pogba and Fernandes together in the 15 months since the Portuguese star’s arrival. They drew six and lost six.
Notably, there have been two purple spots. One of these was the series of Premier League appearances right after the Premier League restart after Covid last summer, when the duo first played together 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 of the twelve points available in four league matches after Pogba limped from their 3-3 draw with Everton in early February with a hamstring injury.
We’ve seen more than enough to suggest that this is a thriving partnership that could lead United to success, assuming the French midfielder, who has no contract in 2022, will stay at Old Trafford after the summer.
Fernandes predicted so much once he arrived from Sporting Lisbon in January last year, remembering how the pair’s plans came true while speaking in Italian while Pogba lay on the treatment table.
Solskjaer knows this, but the challenge, as Scholes alludes, is that they both pass midfield without leaving United too vulnerable defensively.
Pogba (left) and Fernandes (right) began figuring out how best to play together once 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 just won’t be playing the 90-minute defensive screening role of Fred, Nemanja Matic, or Scott McTominay because it holds back his creative instincts too much.
In the past, Solskjaer has adapted his usual 4-2-3-1 to a diamond shape in midfield to accommodate both Pogba and Fernandes, as well as two tenacious players.
The manager ends up being criticized for being too conservative in certain games.
He went with both McTominay and Fred in February’s game against cellar dwellers West Bromwich Albion, a 1–1 draw. But it could easily have been a different story if Pogba had been fit.
The goalless draw at Crystal Palace and the FA Cup win over West Ham extension also saw this belt and braces approach that stifled United’s creativity, but in Pogba’s absence, Solskjaer probably saw little alternative.
Scott McTominay is capable of making a tough shift as United’s midfielder
Midfielder Fred scored against Tottenham last weekend, but some still doubt his ability
Nemanja Matic is the other option in United’s deep midfield and he played against Granada
MANCHESTER UNITED LUMINAIRES
Premier League, unless stated otherwise
Sunday Burnley (H)
April 25 Leeds United (A)
April 29 Roma (H)
Semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League
May 1 TBC Liverpool (H)
6 May Rome (A)
Semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League
May 8 TBC Aston Villa (A)
May 11 TBC Leicester City (H)
These are the games that Scholes was probably thinking about and in terms of United’s diminishing title expectations, Pogba’s injury couldn’t have been timed worse given his good form.
Since Pogba returned, United have beaten Brighton and Tottenham in the competition and made light work of Granada in Europe from the start with both him and Fernandes on the team.
Indeed, Thursday night’s return game was so comfortable after Pogba beat Edinson Cavani to an early opener, Solskjaer could afford to remove the midfielder at half time to avoid picking up a second yellow card.
But a common theme of the midfield conundrum that Solskjaer has grappled with all season is that Pogba’s attack-oriented approach sometimes unsettlingly exposes United.
It’s not expected that 32-year-old Matic or the Duracell bunny McTominay will be able to do all the foreclosure work alone, while Fred will likely never convince any United fan that he deserves to wear the red shirt.
So Scholes’ point about a more dominant center back is certainly valid. We know that Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof can be very tough, although they now have a good understanding as a couple.
Undoubtedly, United needs a more mobile and sharper center-back option to compliment Maguire’s authority in the air and in the tackle.
Someone who can get out quickly and read developing situations could indeed provide adequate coverage for one less midfielder.
Bringing in one is easier said than done and now that United also needs a striker, you wonder where the summer market’s priorities lie.
Victor Lindelof (left) and Harry Maguire have been United’s regular center-back partnerships
United will be desperate to overcome the disappointment of Sevilla’s loss last season and make it into the Europa League final this time – they face Serie A side Roma in the last four.
There’s also talk of a better midfielder coming in, like West Ham’s Declan Rice, who would also provide a fix.
All Pogba and Fernandes have to do first is lead United to a final. They started together last season’s loss to Sevilla in the Europa League semi-finals and the 2-0 defeat of the Carabao Cup to Manchester City this season.
The fact that the link with Roma is more than two legs will help and it will be a major psychological hurdle if Solskjaer’s United can reach the final in Gdansk on May 26.
Rashford’s injury absence provided a short-term solution, but until Solskjaer gets that defensive cover, there’s a risk of letting Pogba and Fernandes play together fully, as Scholes would like.
Whether it prevents them from winning Solskjaer’s first silverware remains to be seen.