In the modern English game, elite teams have multiple creative fulcrums who work in tandem with one another. Youri Tielemans and James Maddison for Leicester City. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, Bernardo Silva, or Phil Foden for Manchester City. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold from wide and Roberto Firmino centrally for Liverpool.
By having multiple players who can pull the strings from different areas of the pitch, teams can circumvent assertive marking and ensure that they have a multitude of methods to penetrate opposition defences.
For the first half of the Premier League season, Manchester United seemingly had no creative presence on the pitch, let alone two. A prolonged injury to Paul Pogba and the woes of Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira have deprived Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side of the necessary imagination and chance-creation to unlock their attacking potential.
The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has gone some way in alleviating this dilemma, fitting seamlessly into United’s 4-2-3-1 in the number ten position and profiting from the solidity of the double pivot and the dynamic movement from attacking players such as Daniel James, Odion Ighalo, Mason Greenwood, and Anthony Martial.
With Pogba now looking more likely to stay at the club, Manchester United finally have the opportunity to have more than one player with elite creative capacity. The question Solskjaer will have to answer is how he can accommodate both Fernandes and Pogba while still getting the best out of the rest of the squad.
United may persist with their current 4-2-3-1, using Pogba as one of the double pivots and keeping Fernandes as the number ten, but this would likely inhibit the Frenchman. Under Jose Mourinho, Pogba seemed unable to influence games in the same manner when deployed in a deeper role as one of a double-pivot. His inconsistent performances led the Portuguese coach to switch to a 4-3-3 in order to afford Pogba greater license to join the attack.
Some may point to how Didier Deschamps has used Pogba for France as evidence that he can excel as one of a midfield two. Yet with nominal central midfielder Blaise Matuidi playing as a left attacking-midfielder and the world-class Ngolo Kante alongside him, Pogba’s excellence for France exists within a specific tactical arrangement and cannot be used as evidence that he can thrive in a double pivot. This is not to say that Pogba is incapable of playing in a midfield two, it simply makes it more difficult to get the most out of him.
Fernandes also could be used in a midfield pivot as he occasionally took up this position at Sporting. Similar to Pogba though, a deeper role would not maximize his abilities. His rapacious start to life at Old Trafford should make Solskjaer wary of adapting his role and potentially stunting his performance.
Solskjaer could also implement a 4-3-1-2 with a diamond midfield. This would see both Pogba and Fernandes occupy their favoured roles of left-sided central midfield and central attacking midfield respectively, yet it would create issues for United in other ways. The lack of natural width in this arrangement would allow opposition defences to play narrowly and deprive the likes of Pogba and Fernandes with the necessary space they need to flourish. The fullbacks would have to play far more aggressively in attack and this could leave United exposed defensively.
A 3-5-2 could also be used, with Pogba and Fernandes as attack-minded eights behind a pacy front two of Marcus Rashford and Martial. However, United do not have a suitable option for a third starting centre-back, neither Luke Shaw nor Aaron Wan-Bissaka is ideally suited to the wingback role, and United have struggled to create chances in this formation when it has been used this season.
It appears that Solskjaer prefers using a back three in games where his side needs to press effectively, keep a compact shape, and hit teams on the counter rather than as a viable starting formation against sides where United need to unlock compact defences themselves. It could potentially work if Solskjaer acquired the right personnel and found a way to coax greater attacking productivity using the system, but these are unknowns and could cause United more harm than good.
Perhaps the most logical option for United would be to use a 4-1-4-1, with Pogba and Fernandes as advanced number eights. Both would be able to drop deep to initiate attacks, run at opposition defences, take up positions in between the lines to dictate play, and pose as goal-threats through late arrivals in the box or their long-range shooting. It would also enable United to retain their pacy wide players, Martial as a focal point, and the solid back four that has been the bedrock of a successful defensive unit.
In order for the system to work, however, United would need to purchase an elite defensive midfielder. Manchester City and Leicester City have been the most successful exponents of the 4-1-4-1 in the Premier League, and both rely on the defensive efforts of Rodri and Wilfred Ndidi respectively. Both have to plug in the gaps left by marauding fullbacks and attacking midfielders, push up to press when necessary, shield the back four through their ball-winning and positioning, and progress possession effectively from the back.
Whilst the likes of Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, and Fred have impressed this season, none are suitable to the role of a single defensive pivot in a 4-1-4-1. Wilfred Ndidi would be the ideal player to perform this role given his familiarity with the system, but he could be prohibitively expensive and may not want to depart Leicester City to join what is – at the moment – an inferior team in United.
The club has been linked to 23-year-old Denis Zakaria, and the Swiss international would be precisely the type of player necessary to use such a setup. Aerially dominant, mobile, astute positionally, and blessed with excellent control and passing, Zakaria would provide United with the necessary ball progression and the defensive cover they would need in a 4-1-4-1.
Saying United are “back” is certainly a stretch. The structural issues in the club’s hierarchy persist. Solskjaer has not yet proved he has the necessary attributes to be a successful manager. Deficiencies throughout the squad remain. Yet in recent weeks, it appears that for the first time in the post-Ferguson era, they are tangibly building for what could be a fruitful future.
Should they be able to maximize the abilities of both Pogba and Fernandes, they will no doubt be a formidable force in the league next season. Whether they can maximize the performance of their two playmakers without inhibiting other facets of United’s play remains to be seen.