After an incredibly underwhelming start to the season that climaxed with a humiliating 6-1 capitulation at home to Tottenham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made the cut-throat decisions necessary to turn Manchester United’s results around.
Dan James, Juan Mata, Scott McTominay, Fred and Axel Tuanzebe have all repaid the faith shown through their first-team reprisals in the way Solskjaer desperately needed; when the gamble of axing big names like Paul Pogba doesn’t pay off, managers are often left staring into the abyss - out of ways to revolutionise the starting XI and left battling a new wave of dressing room upheaval.
While credit must be given where its due, Solskjaer deserving plenty for getting enough big calls right to steady what appeared the most doomed of sinking ships only a few weeks ago, the fact United’s results have improved while employing a theoretically less talented starting XI against theoretically stronger opposition inevitably creates a level of bewilderment about what exactly is going on at Old Trafford.
On Saturday evening, when Manchester United held Chelsea to a scoreless stalemate at Old Trafford, £170m-worth of central midfield talent watched on from the bench, as a holding pairing that can be accurately described as workaday at best - at least by Big Six standards - were selected ahead of them for the third game in a row.
There’s no doubting the influence they’ve had on the team in that time either; a resounding 4-1 win over Newcastle, a perfect away performance against PSG and a draw versus key divisional rivals Chelsea is a vast improvement from United’s first three Premier League showings prior to Solskjaer’s sweeping changes.
So, if Fred and McTominay are indeed the answer for United, what exactly is the question? What are they the solution to and why can’t Manchester United’s midfielders of greater talent and reputation provide it? Pogba, after all, is a World Cup winner and previous world-record transfer, Nemanja Matic won two Premier League titles with Chelsea, and the decision-makers at Old Trafford clearly rate Donny van de Beek, having brought him in only this summer after coming to the fore as Ajax’s box-to-box extraordinaire.
Of that aforementioned trio, Pogba is by far the biggest casualty, having started United’s first three Premier League games and found himself only used as an impact substitute since the loss to Tottenham. Few would argue McTominay or Fred come anywhere close to him as natural footballing talents, but the key difference is in the execution of the roles they’re being asked to play at the base of midfield.
The debate over whether Pogba can be trusted as a deep-lying part of the engine room has persisted throughout his second spell at Old Trafford and particularly since January 2018, after he was subbed off for the first time when United were in a losing position (excepting injuries) following a disappointing 63 minutes partnering Matic in a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham.
While the Frenchman clearly possesses all the physical and technical requisites to play that role, as he did to great effect for his country at the 2018 World Cup, the real question is whether he has the appetite for it, and the selflessness to simplify his game accordingly.
In that respect, the statistics make very telling reading and highlight exactly why McTominay and Fred are proving more effective. While Pogba’s footballing instincts oblige him to play the role progressively, McTominay and Fred act how you’d expect a holding midfielder to act - keeping things simple and providing a platform for the attacking players to take centre-stage.
Whereas all four players to have started in deep midfield for United in the Premier League this season have averaged a similar number of passes per ninety minutes, Pogba’s rates for attempted final third passes, through balls and long passes are considerably higher than Fred and McTominay’s. Although he’s unquestionably capable of pulling them off, those Hollywood deliveries are somewhere between a luxury and a burden for a midfield job where simplicity is often key and ball retention takes precedence over creating chances.
Fred and McTominay have also proved far more effective in firstly winning the ball back cleanly and secondly not taking the kind of risks that result in squandering possession, but perhaps more important than the overall returns is what parts of the pitch they’re operating in. Looking at their heat maps for defensive actions, whereas McTominay (right below) and Fred (left below) are clearly sticking to very specific areas covering their respective sides of the midfield, Pogba’s (central below) a much more nomadic presence and tries to win the ball higher up the pitch.
That inevitably exposes whoever’s been chosen to partner Pogba in midfield, not to mention the back four, and it has an impact on United’s efforts going forward as well. Arguably the most interesting consequence of Fred and McTominay’s willingness to play in the confines of the role asked of them is how that gives more room for Manchester United’s most influential player to thrive - Bruno Fernandes.
When comparing the Portuguese’s form in the three Premier League games Pogba started to the two the 27-year-old was dropped for, we can see a significant uplift in the latter for shots, key passes and touches in the opposition box, while he’s also received slightly more of the ball. Although some of that can be justified by how dominant United were against Newcastle, there is another explanation too - Pogba’s own determination to impact games infringes on Fernandes’ ability to do so.
But it would be unfair to merely conjure an assassination of Pogba as a holding midfielder when there are two other top drawer talents in van de Beek and Matic that have found themselves overlooked as well, not to mention the argument that United’s record signing really shouldn’t be employed as a play-breaking midfielder anyway, and perhaps the root cause of Fred and McTominay’s recent revival is in fact the failings of the club’s transfer policy.
After all, if it’s not actually possible to play Pogba and Fernandes in the same midfield, which appears to be the conclusion Solskjaer has come to, then shouldn’t United have recognised that before they signed him the latter in January? Likewise, should the Red Devils have spent £40m on an ageing Matic, who despite being the club’s most trusted specialist holding midfielder on paper is now being kept out of the team by an academy product nine years his junior?
And if van de Beek still isn’t ready to start a Premier League game, despite now being two months into his United career, should he really have been the club’s biggest signing of the transfer window? Moreover, while van de Beek and Pogba are by no means identical players, many of the above arguments regarding the Frenchman apply to United’s newest midfield recruit as well. Yes, he flourished as part of the engine room pairing in Ajax’s 4-2-3-1 system, but he played the role as a forward-thinking box-to-box midfielder, scoring and creating goals - a far cry from the considerably more contained services Fred and McTominay have provided.
So, what exactly is the question Fred and McTominay are answering? There are a few obvious ones based on the above and United’s recent results that clearly apply: How can United become less porous? How can the Red Devils get the absolute most out of Bruno Fernandes? How can Solskjaer turn his side’s form around?
But all these queries essentially fall under one single umbrella - how can United function better as a team? Ultimately, that is what Fred and McTominay have helped Solskjaer to achieve, by adding to the mix two unspectacular players who will attempt to do no less or no more than the job asked of them - no glitter and baubles needlessly added on top, just a sturdy base for United’s more creative forces to build form.
But that, in itself, poses it’s own set of follow-up questions looking deeper into how the club is operated, chief among those being why does it require leaving out so many big names to create a starting XI not undermined by the caveats of its individuals? How have United got to a place where their bench is more star-studded than the team on the pitch? Successful teams have never simply been a case of collating as many talented players as possible, but certainly in the case of Pogba, van de Beek and Matic, it’s starting to feel like wastage of money and talent.
There are intrinsic flaws throughout this squad and for all the praise McTominay and Fred deserve for their influence over the last fortnight, surely they can only be a temporary solution if the Red Devils are to return to the top of English football any time soon.
- GIVEMESPORT awards #3: Traore, Isco and Modric feature
- PL-winning captains: All 14 ranked on footballing ability
- Man United legend's retirement ended an era for the Premier League