The 3-0 demolition of Sheffield United was the first time Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes started a game together for Manchester United and could be a glimpse into a brighter future for the club.
By the time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer triggered the Premier League’s first every quintuple substitution, the result of Manchester United’s first home game since the restart was beyond doubt.
Anthony Martial had scored the club’s first league hat-trick since Robin van Persie sealed Sir Alex Ferguson’s final league title in 2013, sealing the win with a delicately chipped finish to cap off a flowing move involving Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, and Marcus Rashford.
Solskjaer’s starting lineup was arguably United’s strongest. Amongst them was a mouth-watering front line of Rashford, Martial, and Mason Greenwood, a lethal combination of pace, trickery and versatility. The biggest news, however, was the selection of both Pogba and Fernandes as part of the midfield three.
Ever since Pogba’s return to United from Juventus, the burden of creativity has fallen squarely on his shoulders, and it is not a burden he has borne with ease. At Juve, he had the metronomic Andrea Pirlo beside him, puppeteering from the regista position, but at United, there was no such help in the centre of the field.
As a result, Pogba was constantly trying to play that killer pass, and make something out of nothing, mired by lesser players around him, and a stodgy system under Jose Mourinho that sacrificed attacking fluidity for defensive nous and organisation.
Pogba was clearly growing frustrated, either with the club’s inability to provide a supporting cast or with his own incapability to do everything at once. Teams knew that if they shut down the Frenchman, they would stop United.
Enter Bruno Fernandes.
Pogba and Bruno
With Pogba missing most of the season through a series of ankle injuries, United belatedly stumped up the cash to bring in the Portuguese playmaker. His impact in the league has been instant, picking up four goals and four assists in his first ten games for the club.
Against Sheffield, Man U fans were treated to something they were not sure they would ever see, Bruno and Pogba starting alongside each other for the club. They had served up a tantalising appetiser against Spurs, with Pogba winning a penalty and Bruno converting it, and they did not disappoint against the Blades.
Bruno’s presence appears to have freed up Pogba, who no longer has to shoulder the creative burden and allowed United to build-up a varied passing game that Sheffield could not keep up with.
United racked up more than twice the number of passes that the Blades mustered, and monopolised possession, a situation in which they have struggled for penetration this season. Instead, Pogba and Fernandes were constantly probing, with both completing more passes than any Sheffield United player, while also being first and third respectively in terms of successful dribbles across both teams over the course of the game with five and three, indicating that both were providing variety in their attacks as well.
Interestingly, Pogba and Fernandes combined for a total of two shots all game, a change from their trigger-happy ways, and an indication that neither felt the need to take the game on their shoulders and could trust their teammates to get themselves into better positions.
This spread of creative responsibility also meant that Sheffield could no longer concentrate their efforts on shutting down just one player, for fear of being caught out by the other, and by the end of the day, they could not stop either. This game could well be the blueprint for how Manchester United set up for the rest of this season, as well as the next.
Watching the pair link-up, as well as the likes of Rashford and Martial benefit from their industry and vision, may just be the light at the end of the long, winding tunnel Manchester United have been trapped in since 2013.