Manchester United are flying high at the moment as they sit proudly in first place. This is the first time we are atop the Premier League table since the glory days back in 2013. One main reason for this is the presence of high-quality players in various positions who often step-up and make the difference when the rest of the team seem beaten. Despite strengthening well in the transfer window, United have still not invested in a top-quality defensive midfielder yet. Fred and Scott McTominay have been very impressive so far, but both struggle to hold down the fort by themselves and need a second defensive-minded player to play alongside. This often breaks up the partnership of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. But based on numbers, how good have they been together?
When Bruno and Pogba start together, Manchester United have conceded 1.7 goals per game, just a few more than when Bruno starts alone (1.5). This can be explained by the lack of naturally defensive players playing in central midfield. Also, the pair started the first 3 Premier League games of the season where we conceded 11 goals.
The attacking stats are far more staggering. Given the availability of two creative midfielders, a higher attacking output can be expected. However, Manchester United have done better without Paul Pogba in midfield.
Naturally, this did not add up. How can two top creative midfielders bring down Manchester United’s attacking output?
Pogba and Bruno’s Positioning
One explanation could be the positioning of the players. Maybe they are not playing in the ideal position that maximizes their output. First, considering a game where Bruno Fernandes was excellent – away to Southampton. Despite Edinson Cavani grabbing the headlines that day, Fernandes was excellent and grabbed a goal and arguably an assist.
Bruno Fernandes was immense and all over the midfield that day which made the comeback possible. He had a similar average position during that incredible game against Leeds United as he bagged 2 goals and an assist. So it’s safe to say that he is at his best when he’s all over the pitch.
How does Pogba affect Bruno Fernandes’ positioning?
One of the better attacking displays that the club has seen this season was the game against Sheffield United. Pogba and Bruno combined very well and all attacks were kicked off by them though they did not get a goal or assist.
In that particular game, Bruno played a slightly higher line with Pogba staying deeper and operating from around the half-way line. This adds more depth to the midfield while also maintaining the attacking threat. Pogba’s exquisite passing range proves very influential from positions like this.
Another brilliant game that the duo played together was the 2-0 win over Everton in the Carabao Cup. Some described it as the best game that United played in years. Manchester United was all over Everton from the word “go” and did not allow them a sniff of the ball. We ended the game with 65% possession, 8 shots on target and 16 chances created. Everton completed only 236 successful passes that day, with 56% of it being in their own half.
The positioning is similar to the game against Sheffield United for the most part with one key difference. Pogba is operating right around the half-way line but does not shy away from going higher up the pitch. Bruno, too, has had a decent number of touches on both sides of the pitch. There has been some role reversal here with both players slotting in comfortably in both positions. This is Manchester United’s ideal midfield set-up.
When do Pogba and Bruno not work?
While this midfield is wonderful on paper, it does have its limitations. And we need to look no further than the 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup. Although United was not played out of the park, City was the better team throughout and thoroughly deserved to win. They had 220 successful passes more than United and about 250 more touches of the ball, racking up possession of 60%.
Pogba was given the opportunity to drift further up the pitch, owing to the inclusion of Fred and McTominay. All his touches are concentrated in the opposition half which seemed to make Bruno sceptical about his own position. The Portuguese has scattered passes all over the pitch which symbolizes lack of direction. In terms of touches, both players have had most of their touches in the same area of the pitch – left side of midfield, which leaves our right flank vulnerable. City did exploit that and 37% of their attacks were down our right channel.
What should be done?
Having a lot of quality in midfield is a good thing but finding the perfect pairing is better. Playing McTominay, Fred, Pogba and Bruno have proven itself when shaped in a diamond, but a strong midfield set-up containing the likes of Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan can nullify them. Manchester United need to sign a solid defensive midfielder in the mould of Nemanja Matic who can stay back and let Paul Pogba operate from central midfield while Bruno plays predominantly in the final third.