The general feeling across the Manchester United universe at the final whistle on Sunday, July 26th at Leicester City was that of both relief and celebration. So much about the club’s ambitions, both materially and in theory, depended on the team’s ability to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. The financial boost that it gives grants Ed Woodward a lot more breathing room in budgeting and future planning, which means more money for transfer fees. It also increases the appeal of playing for United for many of the transfer targets that are being courted by other top clubs in England, as well as the appeal of staying at United. These are equally important for continuing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuilding plans.
Similarly to the end of the 2018/19 season, fatigue became a problem for Solskjaer’s side after the restart. However, this time it didn’t turn into defeats, and United kept up a remarkable unbeaten run in the league to earn 3rd place. They finished the season with 36 goals conceded — a dramatic improvement on their 18/19 campaign, in which they conceded 54 goals, and another indicator of Solskjaer’s improvement in defensive management and ability to identify talent.
Add to this the growth of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial as goal scorers and creators up top, and the well-documented impact of Bruno Fernandes, and you can chalk up the 19/20 campaign as a clear sign of growth on the pitch and in the Premier League standings.
What perhaps makes this resurgence more important though, is what it means for the plans of one Paul Pogba, who finally made his return from injury after the restart. The Frenchman made an immediate impact, and helped United see out an impressive unbeaten league run.
Pogba can’t be considered the centerpiece of the team’s future ambitions, as his future remains unclear, but what is clear is that this is a team that suits his style of play. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was once asked what he would do with Pogba, and he replied that he would build the team around him. A lot has changed since Solskjaer was asked that question while managing Molde, but so far Ole has been true to his word: this team is being built around Pogba’s skillset. It’s just up to Pogba now whether this is where his future will be.
Not long after his permanent appointment, Solskjaer settled on a flexible 4-2-3-1 formation that relies on creativity in midfield. There has been a lot said on this site about the lack of talent at no. 10, which is a creative role Pogba excelled at under Interim Ole. But without Pogba there were no reliable creators. Juan Mata is getting too old, and Jesse Lingard is both lacking for form and first-team calibre talent. Also Andreas Pereira has tried to play there.
But then came Bruno.
Bruno Fernandes has come in and made a similar impact as a creator to what we see from Pogba. But Bruno is not a replacement; he is both a complement and a recruiting tactic for Manchester United to give Pogba more pieces to succeed, and convince the Frenchman that they can give him help in midfield as well as in other positions. Pogba no longer has to get forward all of the time, and when he does get forward he isn’t burdened as the only forward passing player.
Both Fernandes and Pogba are reliable on the ball players, good quick passers —though Pogba more-so — and are capable of kickstarting break-aways from anywhere on the pitch. The way Solskjaer likes to play his CDM — dropping back just ahead of the centre backs — suits Pogba and Bruno in games where United will have most of the possession. However, Fred, Nemanja Matić, and a certain new arrival from the Netherlands give Ole more options than the typical midfield shape we saw for most of last season, and Pogba’s versatility is at the center of it all. He is the do-it-all guy and first name on the team sheet in any midfield shape.
Tactically, Bruno and Pogba were unlikely to get in each other’s way (despite early, unwarranted doubts), and we’ve seen that Pogba is comfortable playing a deeper role with another reliable creator alongside him. Bruno Fernandes doesn’t mind dropping deep in possession either, and will get further back in midfield to collect and carry possession. When United settle into possession around their opponent’s goal these two are the ones running the show, but it’s Pogba’s roaming presence that has really helped to open up teams and create space for the front 3. He and Bruno must always be accounted for, and thus create space for each other by simply being on the pitch at the same time. This also creates more space for Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood because of the goal threat they bring on the edge of the area. Because of Bruno’s style and his more advanced position on the pitch, he has been the bigger individual goal threat, but this only takes more pressure and expectation off of Pogba’s game, which is perfectly suited for a deeper creative role.
Pogba’s chemistry with Rashford also makes him an ideal candidate to play more towards the left side of the pitch, but with Bruno carrying some of the creative burden this connection doesn’t have to be option 1 and 1B for United, as it was in the second half of the 18/19 season, and can instead be just another trick this side keeps in its arsenal. We’ve seen Pogba send quite a few long balls into Rashford’s path under Solskjaer, but with more goal scorers and creators, the field should open up even more for the Frenchman.
Solskjaer’s attack emphasizes creative expression and use of width (mainly provided by the full backs), and Pogba has the technical skill and vision to get into wide positions and create, allowing overlapping runs from other players to create confusion and space. And with the emergence of Fred and the reinvigoration of Matić in the no. 6 role, Pogba no longer has to worry too much about being caught out defensively.
Ole’s squad-building focus has now moved towards rounding out the edges of the squad rather than trying to establish its core. The pieces in question are Jadon Sancho, a left-footed centre back, and creative midfield depth. Donny van de Beek addresses the latter, and will help prevent the overuse of both Pogba and Bruno that we saw late late season.
Adding these depth and pieces has not only given Pogba more freedom, it’s made him the hub of a team that continues to add pieces he can trust to make plays. This level of trust didn’t exist under José Mourinho, who was anything but player-focused in his management of United. This isn’t to say that Ole is putting everything onto Pogba, but he’s certainly demonstrated that both his style and his ambitions match Pogba’s, and that he’s capable of listening to the concerns of the team’s top talent.
Now with more talent brought in and brought up, with more reportedly on the way, Pogba is in a position where the pressure is on him to sign a new contract. That isn’t a negative either — it’s a drastic, positive change from where the club was a year ago. The Frenchman has seen a few of his teammates excel and grow under Solskjaer, and reliable teammates continue to arrive in the transfer window. Ole is proving to Pogba that this is a team that can start to match his talent level, and he’s handing him the keys. Pogba just needs to take them.