In Focus: Midfield maestros can fire United into title contention
All the build-up at Old Trafford was about Manchester United’s new arrivals — but it was Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes who stole the show.
Raphael Varane, a £41million signing from Real Madrid, was unveiled to a packed Theatre of Dreams prior to kick-off, while £73m recruit Jadon Sancho was among the substitutes.
Yet it was the much-maligned Pogba and the majestic Fernandes who stole the show as United thrashed Leeds 5-1 to open their Premier League campaign.
Can the dynamic midfield duo inspire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men to title glory this season?
Pogba pulls strings in huge win
Pogba’s future has been a hot topic for months.
The Frenchman, 28, is in the final year of his contract and agent Mino Raiola has not been short of a thing or two to say about his client’s future.
Speaking earlier this year, Raiola said: "With Pogba, what's really important is also what Manchester United want, what project they are proposing for Pogba.
"Pogba has always been interested in one thing — winning the Champions League, titles. That's his objective. And we'll see if that's possible at United or at other big European clubs."
Pogba was in and out of the side under Solskjaer last season, with the Frenchman spending more time on the left-hand side of midfield (598 minutes) than in the left central midfield berth (541 minutes).
And prior to his performance against Leeds, it was far from a given he would be a regular this term.
It was on the left that Pogba started against Leeds and he ran riot against Marcelo Bielsa’s side, racking up four assists — one more than he managed in the entirety of 2020-21.
Next to the Frenchman, Fernandes picked up where he left off last season.
The Portuguese playmaker, 26, was named the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year for the second successive season after scoring 28 times in all competitions.
Saturday’s treble against Leeds was his first United hat-trick and his burgeoning relationship with Pogba was clear for all to see.
Pogba’s deft first-time pass over the top for Fernandes’ opener was evidence of that understanding, with United’s No6 going on to supply the ammo for his team-mate’s second.
His hat-trick came from chances with an expected goals value of just 0.6, which speaks for the quality of his finishing.
Fernandes had the sixth-highest expected goals figure (15.4) in the Premier League last season and led the way for expected goals assisted (11).
If he can share that load with Pogba, United will be significantly stronger as a result.
Fluid forward line
Leeds are one of the Premier League’s best coached and most innovative sides — but they could not deal with the interchanging play of United’s front four, which also included Dan James.
Nominally on the left, Pogba naturally drifted infield and all across the front line. This enabled Fernandes to play further forward with Mason Greenwood regularly vacating the central striker's role.
Pogba supplied five key passes as United demolished Leeds, with four of those ending in goals.
No one in the Red Devils’ forward line attempted (35) or completed (25) more passes than the former Juventus midfielder.
Speaking afterwards, Solskjaer said: "I've had a great relationship with Paul all the time. Today was just about 'go out there and enjoy yourself', we gave him the freedom to roam.
"All the best players want to feel our trust in them and confidence. He can create moments out of nothing and I was impressed with his fitness."
United’s Premier League rivals will be all too aware of the attacking depth available to Solskjaer.
Marcus Rashford is expected to miss up to the first three months of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, while new signing Sancho and Anthony Martial both came off the bench on Saturday.
When Rashford is fit again, Solskjaer will have to decide who plays on the left of the attacking midfield trio.
It has long been said that Pogba’s best position is on the left of a midfield three but that would mean a redeployment for Fernandes, making it a non-starter.
That leaves Rashford competing with Martial and Edinson Cavani to be the club’s main striker, while Greenwood will also expect to be part of that conversation.
Now or never
In summary, only rivals Manchester City have a greater embarrassment of riches in the final third.
With Varane signed to partner Harry Maguire at the heart of defence, this is the strongest squad Solskjaer has had since succeeding Jose Mourinho in 2018.
In Pogba and Fernandes he has two of the most creative midfielders in the Premier League.
Fernandes has been in the top 10 for shot-creating actions per 90 minutes in both of his seasons in England and Pogba featured in 2019-20.
This season marks nine years since United lifted the Premier League — they have never been better equipped to end that hoodoo.