Of the teams with a realistic shot at winning the Premier League title this season, Manchester United is perhaps the most lacking. They don’t have the managerial brilliance of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp; they don’t have the star power and depth of Chelsea; they don’t have a title-defending team that is now welcoming Jack Grealish and probably Harry Kane to the fold. But they do have something that those other teams don’t have. They have Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
United opened their season yesterday by whooping Leeds 5-1, though it’s more accurate to say that Pogba and Fernandes whooped Leeds 5-1. By the time the carnage was finished, Fernandes was walking off the pitch with the game ball in his hands, a reward for netting a hat trick. Pogba, meanwhile, finished the game with four assists, two of which he directed to Fernandes. The pair’s first scoring link-up was a perfect encapsulation of what kind of trouble these two can cause when playing off each other:
On one end of the play you have Pogba, nestling into a pocket of open space between the Leeds back line and midfield, making a one-touch chip pass over the top of the defense that was perfectly weighted and placed to find Fernandes’s run in behind. And on the other end you have Fernandes, darting forward from his position in the midfield, not only making himself available for Pogba’s audacious pass, but expecting it to be there. That’s a pass Pogba is ready to make all the time, but it’s a useless one without another player with Fernandes’s attacking instincts and finishing ability on the field. That’s a run that Fernandes is ready to make all the time, but it’s a useless one without another player with Pogba’s vision and craft on the field. This isn’t to say that Fernandes and Pogba need each other in order to succeed—the long, inch-perfect through ball that Pogba hit to create United’s second goal of the game and the lethal finish that Fernandes used to round out his hat trick say otherwise—but it is a signal that the pair may be on the brink of forging a particularly fruitful partnership.
Fernandes has been a goal and assist machine since arriving in Manchester in January 2020, but Pogba has spent the last few seasons looking for a foothold in United’s best starting 11. To say that his time in Manchester has been a disaster would be an overstatement, but injuries, various spells of disinterest, and constantly shifting roles on the field have prevented Pogba from reaching the heights he’s capable of reaching. This has been a maddening thing to watch unfold, especially for those of us who have gotten used to watching Pogba dominate entire international tournaments as a member of the France national team and then return to United to just kind of fart around for another Premier League campaign.
If you’ve been waiting for France Pogba to finally show up and replace United Pogba, Saturday’s game presented a pretty good image of what that might look like. Playing in front of two defensive midfielders, Pogba was free to get higher up the field and create chances for his teammates. That’s a position Pogba has been allowed to play far too little in a United shirt, and it’s the one that offers him the best opportunity to fire off as many defense-breaking passes as possible. Nobody in the world shrinks the field like him. There are few things in the game more dangerous than Pogba with runners in front of him, and that danger grows exponentially when he’s sharing the midfield with a player like Fernandes, whose chaotic movement and overlapping runs scramble defenses and open up so many lanes for Pogba to slide the ball into.
This will most likely be Pogba’s final season in Manchester. He has one year left on his contract and doesn’t seem too keen on signing an extension. Here’s hoping his last season with the team will be his best, and that he and Fernandes will keep dazzling us every week.