That means it’s time to finally address the biggest, and possibly dumbest, question in the room. Can Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba play together for Manchester United?
How is this even a question?
Paul Pogba doesn’t have any problem sharing the field with Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappe when he plays for France. Bruno Fernandes doesn’t have any problem sharing the pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo. They’re all players that like to have the ball and be the center of attention and yet they all get along.
If Manchester City can figure out a way to play Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, and Riyad Mahrez at the same time, I think United can figure out how to shoehorn two midfielders into three midfield spots. Good players know how to play with other good players.
So how will they do it?
Just kidding. We’re not going to be discussing the diamond here, because that’s a formation that doesn’t suit any of our strikers. We’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Let’s stick with the basics, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Let’s also remember that both Pogba and Bruno have very small sample sizes in the Premier League this year (Pogba 517 minutes, Bruno 450). Nevertheless, here’s how United typically lined up when each of them were playing.
Notice anything about where they play?
This season Pogba has been playing as a deep lying playmaker as part of a double pivot, while Bruno has been deployed in the number 10 role. Pogba will come in for either Fred or Nemanja Matić while Bruno keeps his place as the number 10.
On paper, Fernandes plays as the number 10. Defensively, Fernandes plays as the number 10. But in possession, Fernandes likes to drop deep (and wide) to pick up the ball from the defenders.
This is all well and good, unless United don’t retain possession of the ball, as they do here when Victor Lindelöf just boots it up the field. Now Bruno has to run all the way back up the pitch to get into defensive position.
Until Bruno arrives United can’t do any pressing. They need to wait for him to get all the way up the pitch. It’s entirely inefficient and puts a massive strain on Fernandes. But if Pogba was on the pitch, that would in theory remove the necessity for Bruno to drop deep, right?
That’s the thing. Even if Bruno doesn’t have to drop deep, he doesn’t really play like a number 10. In possession, he plays a lot more like a box-to-box number 8, or an 8.5 as his former manager at Sporting referred to him.
Number 10s need to be creative, but they also need to get into the box and be a threat. Bruno doesn’t do that. Look at him here play Daniel James into space; once he makes the pass he doesn’t charge towards the box, but you can see he even slows his pace down a bit and just ends up in the box eventually.
Or here against Watford. He gets the ball out into space and instead of following the play he just holds up in midfield.
It’s not bad, per se — it’s just Bruno’s game. That’s fine, but juxtapose that with Paul Pogba, who has a nose for getting into the box. He’s always trying to do it.
Even when he doesn’t start the play, he’s looking for chances to get in there.
And if you ask him to play deeper, he still wants to get into the box.
The numbers say the same thing. Despite playing in a deeper role this season, Pogba has gotten the ball, and himself, into the box more often than Bruno.
Bruno seems to get the ball in the final third more often, but doesn’t do as much with it. The 2.40 touches in the box is the most glaring indication that he isn’t quite a number 10. For context, the other two players that have been tasked with playing the number 10 role for United this year, Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, have 3.25 and 3.18 respectively.
Against Everton, when playing at the top of a diamond, 39 of Fernandes’ 91 touches came in the final third, but only five came in the box. He also fired 11 crosses into the box that day (all unsuccessful). He was everywhere around the box that day, just not really in it.
Okay. So drop Bruno back to the no. 8 role, let him facilitate from there and let Pogba play as the no. 10 and get into the box.
Once again, it’s not that simple.
People have said that Pogba can’t defend from the front and that Bruno is far better up there. We don’t have a big enough sample size to say one is better but we’ve seen that Pogba certainly does know what he’s doing up there. Just look at the beeline he makes to cut off the angle to Guendouzi. He knows where he’s supposed to be.
Pogba is better than Bruno defensively and has a better presence in the midfield. Most importantly, if you play Pogba further up the pitch you take away one of his best attributes: his long range passing.
He did that with no run up and put it right on Mbappe’s foot! What he can do from far away is such a weapon.
Bruno is a very good long passer as well, more than good enough to hold his own there for quite a while, but playing him there throughout the match would ultimately make United a bit weaker.
So what’s the solution?
Pogba will start playing as the deeper midfielder with Bruno lining up as the no. 10. Pogba will have the freedom to push up in front of Bruno if he likes, with Bruno dropping deeper for a bit.
At times it’s going to look like a 4-2-3-1, at other times it’s going to look like a 4-3-3. It’s going to be fluid.
From there, either one of Pogba or Fernandes can drop back in to the midfield pair.
This system will add a layer of unpredictability to United’s attack. Fernandes may not get all the way forward, Pogba might make a late run into the box. The two switching positions creates uncertainty as to which one is getting forward, making it harder for defenders to mark them. This is something United have lacked all season long as none of Fred, Nemanja Matić, or Scott McTominay thrive at getting into, and being a threat in, the box.
The system’s success will hinge on the rapport that Pogba and Bruno develop. They need to know where the other one is to ensure that they don’t both get caught forward.
This shouldn’t be a problem. Fernandes has already shown the ability to recognize other midfielders getting in front of him and hanging back.
While Pogba has shown that even starting from a very deep position won’t hinder his ability to get forward and be an attacking threat.
Ultimately, this system will complement both players’ skillsets very well and should get the best out of both players. Pogba will be the deeper of the two. His passing will help United launch quick counter attacks when the opportunity is there.
When it’s not, United will be able to push the ball up to Bruno, who will continue to drop deep or wide to get the ball. The middle third of the pitch will belong to him. When the ball’s there, it’s his show. But while he’s holding the ball in that middle third Pogba will have a chance to further get forward, giving United an extra threat in the box and making them all the more dangerous.
Let’s just get these two on the field already.