Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has left club record signing Paul Pogba and £40million summer arrival Donny van de Beek out of his starting line-up for United’s last two games after the international break.
The return of Fred and Scott McTominay in a midfield pivot has led to a more solid defensive base and an upturn in form after a tough start to the season.
It has led to questions over Pogba’s long-term future at the club as Solskjaer struggles to make things work alongside January arrival Bruno Fernandes in the starting line-up.
The issue of United’s midfield trio was debated at length by club legend Gary Neville and ex-Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports Monday Night Football.
Here’s what they had to say regarding United’s midfield.
Initially discussing Manchester United ’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea, Neville said: “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.
“Manchester United are 15th in the league, their early part to the season, their worst start at Old Trafford for 50 years. They were conceding too many chances, too many goals, and if you look at the first three games of the season at Old Trafford for Manchester United this season, 11 goals conceded, 18 shots per game faced, six on target, expected goals high.
“Then you look at the last two games – there has been a massive mentality shift. Before the game, the big debate was would Manchester United stick with the back five? As Chelsea did, going with the back three, or would they go back to a back four?
“It’s a little bit of a sideshow actually whether United play with a back five or a back four. The key has been what’s in front of it. You look at Manchester United early in the season and they were playing with McTominay and Pogba in midfield.
“Pogba, a completely different player in midfield to Fred, McTominay and Matic. They were getting caught ahead of the ball. Pogba, with Fernandes, both attacking-minded players. Both thinking about creating, scoring goals rather than defend and going the other way. It was leaving United isolated.
“ Crystal Palace absolutely tore Manchester United to shreds that day, they were at that back four far too easily, far too many occasions, and they’re not great one-on-one those two centre-backs, especially Maguire with his pace. This is against Brighton, who had an absolute barrage of chances, and you look at the midfield – it’s Matic and it’s Pogba.
“As the game develops, Luke Shaw is coming down the left hand side, Paul Pogba is trying to move forward from a two in midfield Paul Scholes did that for many years alongside Roy Keane, it’s not unusual. You see him run past his man, Fernandes gives it away.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got it again. If you just watch Paul Pogba slowly, he’s actually pointing towards Wan-Bissaka. He’s actually saying ‘you chase him back, I don’t want to go back there’. He wants the rest of the team to do that for him and ultimately it leads to Manchester United conceding chance after chance after chance.
“It culminated with a pretty horrific day for them against Tottenham at home where they got done 6-1. Coming out of the international break, what’s the difference? The big difference is that Ole Gunnar Solskaer this week has gone back to what served him well last season.
“It’s that box – Lindelof, Maguire, Fred, McTominay. All got a defensive mindset, all quick at getting to the ball, particularly those two in front of those centre-backs.
“Every time Manchester United attacked and the ball broke out to Chelsea’s midfield, they were all over them like a rash. Those two, how aggressive they are, they’re on to things, quick to the ball, quick to react and they recycle the ball.
“What it also did is when Manchester United go on to try and score a goal, it’s a platform. They also allow Manchester United’s full-backs, Wan-Bissaka and Shaw, to be really aggressive. Rather than Lindelof and Maguire getting caught out, that midfield two get out really aggressive towards the side, they’re working in tandem.
“McTominay doesn’t win it then Fred does win it. You see what happens, it just means that back two of Lindelof and Maguire are less exposed. For me, Ole’s almost in some ways thought, ‘I need to go back to basics, I can’t keep conceding chances’.
“He’s got the issue in the stands with Van de Beek and Pogba, 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.”
Asked what that means for Bruno Fernandes, Neville added: “That’s the other side of it. Fernandes hasn’t been as good when Pogba or Van de Beek have played as well. He’s not been as good. He’s the one that’s the star man. He’s rejuvenated United since January. He had the free run of wherever he wanted to go in that No.10 position.
“Bruno Fernandes when he’s playing with Fred and McTominay, shots on target are double, chances created in open play, nearly double. Passes into the opposition box, 14 against 9.2. Dribbles a lot higher, and down at the bottom, when you look at when Fernandes, Fred, McTominay play together, and there are some big games in that nine, they haven’t lost. They’ve won six, drawn three.
“I think Ole’s looked at it this week and said, ‘look, let’s get back to basics, we know these three can play together. We were a mess pre-international break, conceding chances left, right and centre. Tottenham have done us 6-1, Crystal Palace are beating us at home and looked comfortable, Brighton away we were fortunate. He’s thought, ‘right, I’ve got to get a foundation this season’ and he’s done it with this midfield.”
Carragher added: “I actually admire (Ole Gunnar) Solskjaer for putting Pogba on the bench.
“I said here a few weeks ago, after the Crystal Palace game, Fernandes and Pogba, they’re not a midfield together, they can’t play together and they never will be.
“Van de Beek, I don’t understand the signing I really don’t, I don’t get how he’s ever going to play or where he’s going to fit in. As soon as he was signed my thought was he plays No.10, Fernandes plays there, Pogba can play there and you look at it now, and it’s better for the team in terms of having Fred and Scott McTominay there.
“But Fred and McTominay in there aren’t good enough for Manchester United, or to challenge for the Premier League either. And the big problem for me is Paul Pogba, it has been for a long time. Bruno Fernandes is the man in that No.10 position, but I don’t know how Ole can continue to not pick a £90million player so he will get back into the team. But for me, him and Fernandes will never work.”
Neville responded: “I get what Jamie’s saying. I think it’s a problem when you’ve got £150million worth of midfield players on the bench.
“You’ve got a player who’s won the World Cup, he’s been dominant in Europe with Juventus, he’s Manchester United’s record signing and yet he can’t get in the team at the moment.
“Me and Patrice Evra disagreed before the game on Saturday. Patrice was disappointed with the team that was selected because he felt Manchester United were rotating and weren’t playing their strongest team. I think that Ole on Saturday thought that was the strongest team.
“For me, I’ve never understood why Ole hasn’t tried – maybe he’s looked at it in training and he doesn’t like it – why he hasn’t tried one sitter with Pogba and Fernandes in front.
“Like De Bruyne and Silva. De Bruyne and Silva weren’t disciplined midfield players before Pep Guardiola came to Manchester City. He made them into that. That’s the only system I can see where it would be obvious where you could get those two into a position.
“More often than not, Ole’s played Matic and Pogba sitting alongside each other with Fernandes in front. Pogba can’t play there well because I think in that position you do need to be disciplined. But I think with a one and a two you can have a bit more freedom to run forward.”
The pair revisited the debate after the game but were unable to find a full agreement regarding Pogba’s role.
Carragher said: “Gary, after four years, we’re still debating what his position is…”
Neville replied: “To be honest with you, if you said to me De Bruyne would turn into what he’s turned into under Pep Guardiola I’d have said ‘no chance, there’s no way he can be as good defensively as he is in an attacking sense’.
“That’s what he’s done, he’s transition from attack to defence is unbelievable now under Pep Guardiola. It never was before he got there. He was a massive luxury player in the sense that he was a brilliant player, De Bruyne, before Guardiola got to Manchester City but on the ball, not off the ball.
“He was coached, he was moved into a position he made his own, so I don’t give up hope that Matic, Pogba, Fernandes can’t play together in that three.
“There does come a point whereby the burden of Paul Pogba on your shoulder is going to shine brightly on Ole and he’s going to have to get him into the team at some point, alongside Fernandes. Like he did post-lockdown whereby they did well together, they had some good results. I think it can happen again. I don’t share your pessimism about him.”
Carragher: “But how, after four years at Manchester United, are we still talking about finding his best position and can Ole get more out of him? Can he add more discipline to his game?
“He’s been there four years. Explain that to me, then, if he’s as good as you think or you think Ole can get him in the team, why are we having these conversations now?
“It’s almost like you’re hoping or believing he can be something that he hasn’t been for four years.I don’t understand where you’re thinking is with that.”
Neville: “This debate around whether they can play together or whether they can get in the team together.
“If you’d have said to me 10 years ago I’d have said no, forget about it, but the way in which I see teams develop now, with Manchester City winning the league with Aguero, Sterling, Sane, De Bruyne, Silva and Fernandinho as a front six.”
Carragher: “But they’ve got discipline! You keep going to these players, these are players who have won leagues. They won leagues before Pep Guardiola got there…
Neville: “You can’t tell me Raheem Sterling…”
Carragher: “Raheem Sterling’s an amazing player!”
Neville: “I know but he wasn’t as good before Pep Guardiola got there as he has been since, the same as Kevin De Bruyne.”
Carragher: “So you’re blaming the managers?”
Neville: “No, my point is they’ve only had six months and part of that’s been in lockdown.”
Carragher: “He’s been there four years!”
Neville: “No but Ole’s had six months to try and get Fernandes and Pogba together.”