| 16.8°C Belfast

How Fred is key to United getting best out of their dynamic duo

 

Close

Stepping up: Fred has been beginning to make a name for himself at United

Stepping up: Fred has been beginning to make a name for himself at United

Getty Images

Stepping up: Fred has been beginning to make a name for himself at United

Nearly five months after they became team-mates, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes could finally play together tonight.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is expected to deploy his two most naturally-gifted players for the very first time this evening as Manchester United travel to play Tottenham.

The Premier League's three-month pause has allowed Pogba to fully recover from the ankle ligament issues which have limited him to only eight appearances since the start of the season and briefly appeared to have ended his Old Trafford career.

Pogba will instead return to a side rejuvenated by Fernandes' January arrival.

There was a debate during the break about how - and even if - the pair could play together, though Solskjaer's 4-2-3-1 set-up would appear to accommodate them well.

Fernandes has already hit the ground running as United's No.10 - three assists, a goal and a penalty in five league games - and though he can operate deeper, if it ain't broke, why fix it?

Pogba, meanwhile, is underrated as a deeper-lying playmaker. All five of his league starts at the beginning of the season came as one of Solskjaer's two deepest midfielders and based on those performances, he leads the way among the United squad in a range of per-90-minute passing statistics.

Of course, Pogba's numbers are slightly skewed by the small sample size due to his lack of playing time, but they are comparable to last season when he was practically an ever-present. He won a World Cup with France in that position too. With Fernandes' shooting ability from range, the pair have the potential to complement each other.

And so the question is not so much whether Pogba and Fernandes can play together, but who will they play with?

Two of Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic will have their playing time dented by Pogba's return but all three have something going in their favour.

McTominay started alongside Pogba at the beginning of the season and will be viewed by many as the man in possession. His rise has been richly deserved.

Fred, meanwhile, is arguably Marcus Rashford's only rival in United's Player of the Year stakes. He is certainly the most improved, finally returning value on a £52m transfer fee.

And then even Matic, whose time at Old Trafford appeared to be winding down, has received a one-year contract extension.

"Any of them would be capable of playing a full season at Man United and being a regular," Solskjaer said yesterday. "It's given me a nice challenge to pick the right ones: when they are in the right form, when they are against the right opponents. Nemanja, Scott, Fred have had a fantastic turnaround."

Solskjaer's hint that he will adopt a rotation policy makes sense. McTominay, Fred and Matic all offer slightly different qualities, suited to different types of opponent, though on the evidence of this season, one generally stands out above the pack.

Fred has had a genuinely excellent second year - not simply one of adaptation and adjustment after a difficult first term.

A comparison of his defensive performances with those of McTominay and Matic shows how he has become United's lynchpin. Fred wins a tackle every 43 minutes, faster than any other United player with significant minutes under their belt this year.

McTominay rivals Fred when it comes to interceptions, with both cutting out an opposition pass every 56 minutes. Yet the area Fred excels at beyond both McTominay and Matic is pressing. While McTominay and Matic try an average of around 15 presses every 90 minutes, Fred attempts twice as many.

If Solskjaer wants a dynamic defensive presence approaching his peak to be the most effective foil to Pogba and Fernandes, Fred is the outstanding candidate. He should be the third prong in a new-look midfield.

But if the Brazilian is instead one of the two to lose out, United may fail to strike the right balance, and Solskjaer may not feel the benefit of finally having his best two players on the pitch.

Belfast Telegraph