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The Fernandes-Pogba Debate: A Match Made in Heaven or Destined to Fail?

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Are Fernandes and Pogba the future of United?

With Paul Pogba now fully fit, it appears Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can select the midfield fans have been dreaming of – pairing the Frenchman with January signing Bruno Fernandes.

It will certainly be intriguing to see how the duo performs together, and I’m sure both Solskjaer and the Red Devils faithful will be hoping they can mesh effectively from the get-go, particularly with speculation that they may not suit each other’s playstyles.

Everyone associated with the club will be praying for the two to work, as a place in the UEFA Champions League is on the line – United are currently 7/4 to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition.

Styles make fights

Critics argue that Pogba and Fernandes will not gel as a midfield pairing simply due to the way each midfielder plays the game. This is interesting, as both are hard-working players that do their part on both ends of the pitch, whether it is in attack or defence.

Paul Pogba loves to shoot from distance, of course, but his passing range is his best asset. Pogba can spray balls all over the park – on the ground or a more aerial approach – as well as play effectively in quick-passing situations, often flicking the ball impressively to a teammate in space. The Frenchman’s ability to play key passes – and score himself – should not be ignored, as he tallied 16 goals and 11 assists in all competitions for United last season. Pogba works best, like any world-class footballer, when space is foolishly afforded to him by the opposition – and that would likely be the case when paired with a talent like Bruno Fernandes.

The diminutive Portuguese midfielder took the Premier League by storm upon his arrival from Sporting Lisbon for a reported £47 million. Fernandes has scored three times and registered four assists in United red already, but it was his form for Lisbon that truly shows his world-class talent: he scored a remarkable 32 goals in 53 appearances in 2018/19, with 18 assists.

Fernandes’ ability to run with the ball, pick the right pass for his teammate as he drives his team forward, and finish is almost unrivalled – particularly for a centre-midfield player. He, like Pogba, loves to play the quick-passing football filled with delightful tricks and flicks.

The Portuguese’s elite set-piece ability certainly adds more flair to his game, but it is Fernandes’ defensive work-rate and under-rated tackling ability that evidences his completeness. Going against the name of his position here, but the attacking midfielder oddly loves to defend. Fernandes is unafraid of getting stuck in, and that – as well as several top-quality attacking performances – is why United fans have fallen in love with him so quickly.

Is it too much to ask?

Media speculation that the two players will struggle to play together intensified recently following United’s friendly 2-1 defeat to Championship side West Bromwich Albion. The duo played together as the midfield pairing, which doesn’t exactly inspire hope, but Fernandes scored and missed a penalty – and it was a friendly after months without football.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is rumoured to be sticking with his 4-2-3-1 formation for the start of Premier League action, and with McTominay and Fred finding form before the break in play, it suggests that one of Fernandes or Pogba will play further forward than the other. So, how do the two superstar midfield players fit in this system?

Knowing the strengths of each player, this formation could give Solskjaer the opportunity to mix up his tactical approach. Pogba will likely be deployed in a deeper role, next to the other holding midfielder whilst Fernandes plays as the ‘no.10’ behind the striker – but you could have the two overlap each other due to each’s ability to attack and defend. This is not to say that they will clash, but the inter-changeable ability – Pogba’s attacking intuition and Fernandes’ defensive mentality – means that the Red Devils could throw off opposition defenders and attackers alike.

It appears that Pogba is destined to slip into that midfield place, and embrace a box-to-box role. His ability to pass the ball effectively should not be disregarded, and his passing accuracy is at 83.2% this season compared to Fernandes’ 72.1%. This is interesting, but doesn’t completely claim that the Frenchman is better with the ball at his feet than his Portuguese colleague – it suggests that Fernandes plays riskier passes as he thrives in the final third of the pitch. The former-Sporting man is also more inclined to shoot on a regular basis, averaging 3.6 shots per 90 minutes compared to Pogba’s 2.2, and his pre-break form has seemingly earned Fernandes the role behind the striker.

With Fernandes behind the chosen forward and Pogba next to McTominay or Fred, United would appear to be at their strongest. Both players should – and more than likely, will – be given a large amount of freedom in Solskjaer’s system to close out the season. United have quality players in many positions around the field, but as the season draws to a close, it becomes increasingly likely that the Red Devils’ push for the UEFA Champions League will come down to how these two world-class talents perform together.

By Andrew Gamble