Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has two favoured midfield pairings. Fred and Scott McTominay is one, with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba the other.
He rarely mixes them up, with good reason. The Fred and Paul Pogba one is a pairing he experimented with before, with poor results.
At the end of the 2018/19 season Solskjaer played Fred and Pogba together for a run of six matches. United lost five of them.
The sole win came against West Ham in a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford in April 2019.
Last night was the first time Fred and Pogba had won a game starting as a midfield duo in 90 minutes for United since then.
There are a couple of qualifiers here. First, throw out any game in which United have started four central midfielders.
This includes the win over RB Leipzig in which Fred and Pogba were able to operate with Nemanja Matic as a shield behind them.
Secondly, note the 90 minutes detail. United actually won two matches with the pairing with extra-time. These were against Rochdale in the Carabao Cup in September 2019 in which penalties were needed, and then against Copenhagen in August 2020, when an extra-time penalty gave us a victory.
So to win this one was progress, and might give Fred and Pogba a bit of encouragement as a partnership.
The record has existed so long partly because Solskjaer has not used them together very frequently.
The fear is that as a duo, they do not offer enough defensive protection. The case in point was in the Europa League semi-final against Sevilla, where United’s attackers squandered chances and then the Spaniards made us pay.
Even this game against Fulham started very poorly with United conceding after five minutes
But after that, United improved and took control of the midfield, especially in the second half.
There was one moment in the 53rd minute in which they worked well in tandem, Fred won the ball back with a tackle to stop a Fulham counter-attack, before Pogba won the second ball, and went onto get the ball into the final third and launch an attack ourselves.
These are the kind of moments and small details which show a developing partnership and demonstrate there is some improvement, that Pogba and Fred and learning how to play together successfully. And it’s about time.
Pogba of course scored United’s winner. Fred created two chances to Pogba’s one, while between them they won seven tackles and five interceptions.
Whether United use this partnership more often will be interesting. At home against Sheffield United next week may be another ‘easier’ game in which to experiment.
Good players need to find a way to gel and for Pogba and Fred, racking up a win together for the first time in almost two years is a first step.
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