Three games was all it took for Manchester United and their fans to see what a special talent the club had recruited after signing Bruno Fernandes from Sporting CP. Three games, one goal and two assists to underline that. Unlike numerous of the club’s larger expenses of the past seven years, this signing worth up to $88 million was already proving to be money well spent.
It was in that third United appearance at home to Watford in late February that Fernandes, 25, opened the scoring with a penalty he himself had won, later assisting academy graduate Mason Greenwood on the counter to seal a 3-0 victory. Taking the reins in a team lacking leadership, counter-attacking ‘the United way’ and bringing youth into the fold when possible; for some at Old Trafford, that’s the perfect hat-trick.
Fernandes’ immediate success in United’s first team dwarfed that of Paul Pogba after he had returned to the club in 2016. With the Frenchman confined to the sidelines due to an ankle injury at the time, some inevitably suggested Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could afford to move on from Pogba and devote faith to his emerging Portuguese jewel instead, but it’s the opposite that is in fact true.
Supporters witnessed it on Thursday evening—albeit from their homes due to the COVID-19 attendance ban—when United dismantled Aston Villa 3-0 at Villa Park. Fernandes again converted a penalty he had earned before setting up a Pogba settler that required no small amount of individual input:
This was the fourth top-flight match in a row that Pogba and Fernandes had started alongside one another, which coincided with Solskjaer’s United becoming the first team to win four Premier League games by a margin of three or more goals (via Opta).
Despite any seeds of competition between the two midfielders that may have been sown in recent months by countless pundits, it was clear from Pogba’s reaction upon scoring his first goal for the club since April 2019—running over to embrace corner-taker Fernandes—that all is more than well between the pair.
This time last year, many at United were reeling from Pogba’s suggestion that he was ready to leave the Red Devils a second time in search of “a new challenge” (via ESPN FC). Fast forward to present day and it appears the new United are satiating his competitive desires more wholesomely, with midfielder having recently told ManUtd.com how much he’s enjoyed watching his team-mates from a distance:
“From behind I just enjoy it. I’m enjoying just watching Bruno, Rashford, Martial and Mason, who all played the last game, and seeing them score goals. You just keep applauding, it’s beautiful… they make me enjoy football every time!”
Pogba’s happiness off the pitch is critical to the product he brings on it. Some stars take more nurturing than others, but it’s clear from his time at Juventus and in the French national team just what the 27-year-old is capable of when playing with the right amount of verve in a system that suits his requirements. That may sound like pandering, but many managers are willing to fluff the ego of certain individuals if it leads to better results and, in turn, greater chances at silverware.
The midfield makeup at Old Trafford has swiftly turned from a topic of frustration into the kind of heated-but-enjoyable debate their supporters were accustomed to in years gone by. Solskjaer had almost a free-for-all near central midfield in the first half of this season involving a rotation of Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic, Fred, Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, but his two greatest creative weapons in that position have now provided clarity on the matter.
It’s become clear since the Premier League restart that Solskjaer wants to see Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay compete for that anchoring role behind the advancing Fernandes and middle man Pogba.
The manager has started Matic ahead of McTominay in each of United’s last four successive wins, and football analyst Pauly Kwestel provided evidence to suggest that’s the right call:
Matic recently extended his contract with the club until 2023, suggesting his rebirth in form of late could signal a new lifeline at Old Trafford while McTominay remains the understudy.
Former Red Devil Patrice Evra recently praised the Serb for his performance in a 3-0 win at Brighton & Hove Albion:
Fred—a $66 million signing from Shakhtar Donetsk in June 2018—has made 40 appearances in all competitions this season, but it remains difficult to specify what he brings to the table that others cannot. Similar goes for the likes of Lingard, Pereira and 32-year-old Mata, who carries attributes in the creative department, but not in the same bracket as Pogba or Fernandes.
United have scored 15 goals in the five Premier League games in which Pogba and Fernandes have appeared since June 19 (three goals per game). It’s a bit of an unfair comparison given the contrasting sample sizes, teams faced and extra time he’s had to settle, but even if we position that against the eight goals scored in Fernandes’ five Premier League games prior to the suspension (1.6 goals per game), it’s obvious the benefit that can be had from fielding both in the same lineup.
The boosting effect of a proper No. 10—even though Fernandes can contribute a surprising amount in defence—has been highlighted even more so considering the pressure taken from Pogba in that regard. The 2018 World Cup winner returned to Manchester four years ago and was repeatedly asked to perform tasks that were beyond his remit at Juventus, where he had the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal to alleviate those other responsibilities in attack and defence.
That’s the aid provided by United’s star January signing in the present, with Pogba further galvanizing a United offence that was already on the up, per Adroit Cadet:
Fernandes was certain to be talk of the town given his prominence while Pogba recovered from an ankle injury, just as Odion Ighalo’s goals went all the more appreciated while Marcus Rashford coped with a double stress back fracture suffered in January. Still, few might have predicted just how big an impact he would make as a signing from the Primeira Liga, a division whose exports have had mixed success in England.
Perhaps it was Pogba’s previous protestations and hints toward the Old Trafford exit that encouraged his detractors to prop up a possible departure after Fernandes began to flourish so early on at the club. Now the player is fit and seemingly happier with the resources around him, talk has emerged of the star signing a new contract at the Theatre of Dreams, per Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News.
When quizzed on Pogba’s contract—which is currently due to expire in 2021, with the option of an extra year—Solskjaer told reporters of his intent to “build a squad for the future” involving the best players. It’s to the benefit of all parties involved if the club’s record signing can be convinced to prolong his stay in light of the new prospects arising.
Three games were all that was required for United to see what they had in Fernandes. And—despite the previous write-offs from those looking on—it's obvious now that a healthy Pogba alongside him raises United's ceiling ever higher. After all the ups-and-downs since the Frenchman made his initial first-team appearance under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2011, this is perhaps the most excited and hopeful United supporters have been. If he too feels a renewed sense of excitement and hope, it could be enough to deliver United another major trophy. And then—finally—everything will have been worth it.