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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Who should partner Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes in midfield?

Should Matić, Fred, or McTominay start against Spurs on Friday?

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester United is so close we can almost touch it. So close that we can now needlessly start debating team selections as if any of our opinions matter.

In our previous tactical analysis, we discussed how a diamond midfield would be a bad idea for a myriad of reasons. Following from that, logic tells us that against Tottenham Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will deploy United in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. It’s the formation he’s always wanted to play, and it’s the formation he’s established that every level of the club plays. There’s no reason that he would change that now.

Most of the team for Friday’s match picks itself. David de Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are locks. You can debate Eric Bailly vs Victor Lindelöf and Luke Shaw vs. Brandon Williams for center back and left-back respectively, but based on the team selections for the two friendlies vs. West Brom last Friday it certainly looks like it’ll be Lindelöf and Shaw. On the right wing we can expect to see Daniel James over Mason Greenwood (or Juan Mata) due to the Welshman’s defensive abilities.

In midfield, we know that Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes should start. That leaves one spot open for Fred, Scott McTominay, or Nemanja Matić.

All three of these players have held a starting position at one time this year, and thus have a claim to it. At the start of the season Solskjaer opted for McTominay to pair Pogba in midfield. From about October onward, Fred not only held down one of the two midfield spots, but was easily United’s best midfielder. From around mid-January until the season suspension in March, Nemanja Matić made a similar claim.

So who should Solskjaer call upon?

Recent form is pretty much out the window because we just had an entire offseason length break since United last played. There’s no such thing as recent form.

Most importantly, United will need someone who will be compatible with Bruno and Pogba. They need someone who will protect the back four, win the ball back, and maintain possession.

Based on performances this season, that eliminates McTominay.

The Scot has come up big in big matches throughout the season, but his strength lies in disrupting the opposition in midfield, something that probably won’t be as necessary against this version of Tottenham.

As much as McTominay’s defensive prowess is praised, he doesn’t outperform Fred or Matić in any defensive category except having more interceptions than Matić. United’s defense has been better without McTominay, with their xGA dropping from 1.05 per game to 0.90. Their goals against per game drops from 1.06 to 0.85.

What really eliminates McTominay from contention in this game is his ability on the ball. He’s not a good enough passer and doesn’t protect the ball as well as his counterparts. He plays safer passes than Matić, whom we all complain is too safe. Most concerning, McTominay is targeted for passes by his teammates less than any other midfielder, a trend that dates back to the games he played in last season as well. That tells us that either his teammates don’t want to give him the ball, or he does a poor job of getting himself free in midfield.

Then there’s Nemanja Matić. Like most people, I was pretty ready for Matić to leave in January and was only okay with him sticking around because United needed bodies. But since mid-January Matić has made an extremely strong case to keep his place, and the numbers back that up.

United’s xG drops with Matić this year because they’ve been devoid of players, but in previous years its rise has suggested that his presence allows the offensive players more freedom to do their thing.

Without Matić this year, United are averaging 1.13 xGA. With him, that number drops to 0.99. That includes matches against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City.

It appears that United are clearly better defensively when Matić is on the pitch, and that’s exactly what United need. Someone who can play defensively and thus give Bruno and Pogba more freedom to push up and create. I understand that his pace is a bit of a concern but I don’t think it’s that big of a concern.

And if we’re reading into Solskjaer’s team selection for the friendlies against West Bromwich, then it looks like it’ll be Matić playing with Bruno and Pogba, likely looking something like this:

Ultimately though, my answer to the question of who should start at the base of United’s midfield is still the same as it was a few months ago: Fred.

From November to December-ish it was clear that given the way Solskjaer wants United to play, Fred and Pogba would be United’s best midfield pair. We only got to see it for 45 minutes, but boy was it good.

The two played the second half of United’s Boxing Day contest against Newcastle. In the first half, United scored three goals on 13 shots and an xG of 0.87 (0.07 xG per shot — really good finishing!). In the second half United scored once on nine shots but with an xG of 1.13 (0.13 xG per shot). Now factor in that Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were withdrawn 15 and 20 minutes into the second half, respectively. The majority of that half Pogba was playing with Mason Greenwood at center forward and Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard as the other attacking players.

United had 63 percent possession in that first half, a very good number. In the second half that number rose to 71.32 percent. That’s a massive increase although there’s no doubt that that’s also in part to Newcastle toning it down in the second half as the game was lost and had to preserve themselves for another match two days later.

The concern over a Pogba-Fred axis is that the two of them aren’t positionally disciplined enough to stay home defensively. That isn’t exactly true though.

Fred is a high energy player who this season is racking up 30.19 presses per game, an off the charts number for a midfielder. That number dropped to 25.5 in games where Fred was paired with Andreas Pereira in midfield and needed to serve as the more defensive of the two. That suggests that when he needs to be more disciplined, he can be. Probably not right away, but he can learn it.

Pogba is not necessarily the ill-disciplined maverick he’s made out to be either. At the 2018 World Cup with France, Didier Deschamps deployed him in a double pivot with N’Golo Kante. Obviously, Kante is probably the best defensive midfielder in the world, but that comes from the fact that he runs everywhere. The running joke at Leicester was that they played Danny Drinkwater in the middle with Kante on both sides. He doesn’t stay home.

That is very similar to Fred. Where Fred presses 30.19 times a game, Kante was pressing 27.77 times. That didn’t seem to hinder Pogba’s freedom or expose France defensively. And that was for a team that only had 48.5% possession! Pogba is at his best when he’s given freedom, but that’s because he’s so damn good getting forward, not because he’s bad at the defensive aspect of the game.

The other reason to choose Fred is his versatility. His two-footedness allows him to play on either the left or the right (whereas Matić prefers the left). That’s crucial if Pogba and Bruno will be interchanging throughout the match. Fred can just shift around to either side with no problem.

The reality is, regardless of who United pick they can’t really go wrong. This is a team that’s very disciplined defensively and is very adaptable. They’ve beaten Manchester City three times this year with three different game plans from two different formations. They beat Mourinho and Guardiola in consecutive games with the same formations but wildly different ways of playing it. They’ve beaten Chelsea three times with three different central midfield pairings.

This team is built for adaptation, so it shouldn’t matter who they pick in the third midfield spot. Maybe Solskjaer chooses Matić on Friday for some more defensive stability, but then brings in Fred in matches where United will need to be a bit more offensive.

Regardless of who Solskjaer picks against Spurs, the other two are going to play quite often. You’re not going to find a much better midfielder coming off the bench to shore up the game than McTominay. Ensuring that your best players don’t play 90 minutes every game is going to be crucial to navigating the rest of the season, and for once, Solskjaer has multiple viable midfield options to consider.