Manchester United can use Jose Mourinho inspiration to devise new Bruno Fernandes plan
In June 2018, Manchester United and more specifically Jose Mourinho, thought they had found the key to ‘unlocking’ Paul Pogba.
Pogba had not yet hit his straps under Mourinho at Old Trafford by this point, despite the Portuguese’s favourite former Chelsea defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic playing as his foil in the centre of the pitch and despite Pogba’s heroics at Juventus.
It was widely agreed back then that United needed to play a 4-3-3 with Pogba allowed licence to roam forward alongside two more defensively disciplined midfielders. The £52million acquisition of Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk was seen as the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle.
“Fred will complement our other midfielders’ qualities,” said Mourinho when United announced the signing of the Brazilian. “His creative brain and passing vision will give us another dimension to our game.”
It was interesting that Mourinho saw fit to mention the other players — in other words Pogba — before talking about Fred’s own attributes. As we know now, the ‘Special One’ never saw through his special plan for Fred, Pogba and Matic, but perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can take a leaf out of his predecessor’s book — for once.
Because in the final half-hour of United’s comfortable 3-0 victory over Aston Villa, as he’s done in the latter stages of games in recent weeks, Solskjaer tested his team by taking off Bruno Fernandes.
There is no doubt the former Sporting Lisbon playmaker has transformed United in the space of 10 Premier League appearances. He still hasn’t tasted defeat in a United shirt and has been the inspiration behind the unbeaten run that Solskjaer’s men will look to stretch against Southampton on Monday.
Where would United be without Fernandes? They probably wouldn’t be pushing hard for a top four, maybe even top three finish, as they are doing now. As an illustration of his impact, United lost five of their 12 games before Fernandes’ January arrival. They haven’t lost in 17 games since.
But as Solskjaer surely knows, not even the effervescent Fernandes can play every game.
So as United prepare for their most arduous period since the restart, with three games in six days against Southampton, Crystal Palace and Chelsea — the latter a huge FA Cup semi-final — it’s clear the ‘Portuguese magnifico’ may have to sit out of a game.
That was Solskjaer’s test away at both Villa and Brighton, in which Fernandes was replaced in the 71st and 64th minutes respectively. United’s midfield changed shape at Villa Park, as Fred came on to sit alongside Scott McTominay, who had already replaced Matic in the deeper role. Pogba was then encouraged to get further forward, not quite in Fernandes’ No.10 role but as a progressive No.8.
There will come a time, either because of a Fernandes’ injury or if United are protecting a lead against a strong side, that this experiment will be come into important use. Two of Fred, Matic and McTominay in the defensive roles and Pogba in that position that Mourinho thought was perfect for him.
Of course, Solskjaer, with the help of Fernandes, has proven there is an alternative system in which Pogba can thrive. The Frenchman is very much part of a midfield collective these days and looks fit and focussed.
The big question for United is whether they can continue to flourish even when Fernandes requires an inevitable rest. The answer to that is not far away, though Mourinho — for all his current struggles at Tottenham — might have already stumped across a solution.
From one enigmatic Portuguese maverick to another.