Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has “gone back to basics” and returned to his trusted midfield set-up to solve the team’s defensive problems and help Bruno Fernandes, Gary Neville told Monday Night Football.
United went into the international break earlier this month on the back of a 6-1 thrashing at home to Tottenham, having already lost 3-1 at Old Trafford to Crystal Palace and scraped past Brighton 3-2 with a late, late penalty.
But since the Premier League has resumed, United have beaten Newcastle 4-1 and drawn 0-0 with Chelsea, as well as picking up an impressive 2-1 Champions League win at Paris Saint-Germain.
Sky Sports pundit Neville explained Solskjaer’s return to playing two holding midfield players behind Fernandes – opposed to trying to play Paul Pogba along with just one defensive midfielder and Fernandes – is key to the turnaround.
“I think the general pattern in the league, of all the goals in the early part of the season, these two managers [Solskjaer and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard] were in a situation where it was starting to reflect upon themselves, all the chances they were conceding. They looked naive,” said Neville.
“Man Utd are 15th in the league, their worst start at Old Trafford for 50 years, they were conceding too many chances and too many goals.
“There has been a massive mentality shift. Before the game [with Chelsea] the big debate was would Man Utd stick with the back five, or go to a back four. It’s actually a bit of a sideshow, the key has been what’s in front of it.
“If you look at Man Utd early in the season, they were playing with Scott McTominay and Pogba in midfield. Pogba is a completely different player to Fred, McTominay and Nemanja Matic, and they were getting caught ahead of the ball.
“Pogba and Fernandes – both attacking-minded players, both think about creating and scoring goals rather than defending and going the other way – and it was leaving Man Utd with an isolated area with one player in there.
“Palace tore Man Utd to shreds that day. They were at that back four far too easily, on far too many occasions, and they’re not great one-on-one those two centre-backs, particularly Harry Maguire with his pace.
“Man Utd conceded chance after chance after chance [against Brighton]. Ultimately it culminated in a pretty horrific day for them against Tottenham when they got done 6-1.
“Coming out of the international break, what’s the difference? Ole has gone back to what served him well last season – that box: Victor Lindelof, Maguire, Fred, McTominay. All have a defensive mindset. All quick at getting to the ball, particularly those two in front of the centre-backs.
“So every time Man Utd attacked, and the ball broke out to Chelsea’s midfield, they were all over them like a rash.
“They also allowed Man Utd’s full-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw to be really aggressive, and the midfield two get out aggressively towards the side, they’re working in tandem. It just means those back two for Man Utd, Lindelof and Maguire, are less exposed.
“For me, Ole has almost thought, ‘I need to go back to basics. I can’t keep conceding chances’. He’s got the issue in the stand, with Donny van de Beek and Pogba [not playing], but he has gone back to basics this week and it’s meant they’re more difficult to play against and they’re conceding less goals and chances.”
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Freeing up Fernandes
Neville also believes the move from Solskjaer to leave Pogba and Van de Beek on the bench and play Fernandes ahead of two holding midfielders in Fred and McTominay, will get the Portuguese firing again.
“Fernandes hasn’t been as good when Pogba, or Van de Beek has played,” said Neville. “He’s the star man, he’s rejuvenated Man Utd since January. He had the free run of wherever he wants to go in that No 10 position.
“Ole has looked at it and thought, ‘let’s get back to basics, I know these three (Fernandes, McTominay, Fred) can play together, we’re a mess pre-international break, we’re conceding chances left right and centre, Tottenham have done us 6-1, Palace have beaten us at home and looked comfortable, Brighton away we were fortunate’.
“He’s thought, ‘I’ve got to get basically a foundation this season and he’s done that with those three in midfield’.”
Carra: Pogba and Fernandes will never work
Jamie Carragher believes the move to prioritise Fernandes and defensive security at the expense of Pogba’s place in the team shows Fernandes and Pogba cannot play together in midfield.
However, he feels the pressure to play United’s most expensive signing will lead to Pogba returning to the team at some point – and he also questioned whether the base of Fred and McTominay is good enough for United to win the Premier League.
“I actually admire Solskjaer for putting Pogba on the bench,” he told Monday Night Football. “I said it a few weeks ago, after the Crystal Palace game, Fernandes and Pogba can’t play together. They are not a midfield and never will be.
“Van de Beek, I don’t understand the signing. I don’t get how he was ever going to play or where he was going to fit in. As soon as he signed, my thought was, ‘He plays No 10 but Fernandes plays there and Pogba can play there’.
“You look at it right now, it’s better for the team to have Fred and McTominay there. But Fred and McTominay as a centre midfield for Manchester United is not good enough for them to challenge for the Premier League title.
“The big problem for me is Paul Pogba and it has been for a long time.
“Fernandes is the man in that No 10 position. But I don’t know how Ole can continue not to pick a £90m signing in Paul Pogba. It’s not easy for a manager. So, at some stage he will get back into the team, but him and Fernandes, for me, will never work.”
A Pogba-Fernandes solution?
Neville came back with an alternative way of playing, which he said may allow Solskjaer to play both of his star names – Fernandes and Pogba – in a midfield together.
“I get what Jamie is saying. I think it’s a problem when you’ve got £150m worth of midfield players on the bench. In Pogba, you’ve got a player who has won a World Cup and been dominant in Europe with Juventus. He’s Manchester United’s record signing. And yet he can’t get in the team on a Saturday,” said Neville.
“For me, I’ve never understood why Ole hasn’t tried – and maybe he’s looked at it in training and hasn’t liked it – one sitter with Pogba and Fernandes in front, like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva at Manchester City. De Bruyne and Silva weren’t disciplined midfield players before Pep Guardiola came into Manchester City. He made them into that.
“That’s the only system I can see where it would be an obvious way of getting them into the same team. More often than not, Ole has played Matic and Pogba sitting alongside each other with Fernandes in front. Pogba can’t play there because in that position you need to be disciplined. But with a one then a two, I think you can have a bit more freedom to run forward.”
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