With every performance so far, an asterisk. Tottenham played without a ball-winner. Sheffield United’s form had deserted them. Norwich were Norwich. At the moment, Manchester United’s midfield improvement is being measured against a wavering standard, with the added complication of these uncertain times. Line-ups are changing, players are dropping in and out, making this really a time to survive rather than to be charting actual progress.
Brighton felt like a more compelling challenge, though. Yves Bissouma and Davy Propper have had an excellent restart, stamping out Arsenal in their first game and, having been joined by Dale Stephens at the King Power, nullifying wilting Leicester City in their second.
This seemed like a test to be trusted. Brighton’s midfield is becoming a known commodity and their forward line has shown some signs of life. In response, though, United gave their most commanding away performance of the season. They were outstanding, playing with industry, class, and vibrant life through the middle, giving further credibility to the Fernandes-Pogba-Matic axis at their heart.
From kick-off, Brighton collapsed into the kind of shape that has so often been United’s undoing. Graham Potter set his side out in a 4-4-2, with Martin Montoya and Tariq Lamptey as a double full-back lock on the right-hand side. It was clear what kind of challenge this was to be and that United were going to have to play front-foot football to break them down.
And they did, almost immediately. Early on, there was a quick tease of what has made the Pogba-Fernandes combination so potent, with a square pass across the box and a side-foot against the post. Even against teams determined to limit the space in front of their defence, United are finding these little pockets now – and when they do, there’s now a more dangerous, dynamic player waiting to capitalise.
That feels like it might be the result of a few different factors. United are circulating the ball with an intent to examine their opponents now, and with players leaving their positional posts more regularly. It’s a more fluid system. Victor Lindelof’s off-the-ball run was key to Mason Greenwood’s goal and Marcus Rashford’s range of influence was also particularly broad; he touched the ball 48 times in the first half alone.
The pressure applied without the ball has also been ratcheted up, with Brighton enjoying nothing like the time in possession they did against Arsenal. It came from everywhere, too – from the young and hungry forwards, but also from deep, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw pressing as a high as the corner flag and forcing rushed and aimless clearances.
There was more movement, there were more ideas and there was more stress exerted, with the effect of all three accentuated by the creativity which is currently running through this side’s seam.
Bruno Fernandes is the emblem of that change, and he spent much of the first 45 minutes sitting between Brighton’s defensive and midfield lines. But he was also seen dropping deep, collecting the ball from his defenders. At other times, he was wide, pushing passes in off the touchline and driving in-field.
And Paul Pogba played in much the same way, just with a longer stride and a quieter menace. The effect – combined – is of roaming snipers, shifting positions until they can find the perfect shot. Sometimes they play yards apart, at other times almost shoulder-to-shoulder. Regardless, when they train their guns on the same target, the effect is devastating: the second time Pogba cut the ball back on the edge of the box, there was no post to save Brighton. 2-0 and the game was over.
These are early days in their partnership, yes, but there’s already much to like. By fielding both of them and allowing them to roam similar positions, they each attract plenty of attention. Invariably, that creates space and opportunity elsewhere and those ‘pockets’ of opportunity mentioned above.
In both of the moves for which they combined, for instance, the fracture in the defence was caused by Brighton’s rush to close Pogba down. Perhaps this is a set move? It doesn’t matter who has the ball, because they can each play passes with such wonderful disguise. Maybe the key is just shifting that unit around, putting it in position to do the most harm, lining it up where the only rational outcome is a numerical mismatch and a good shooting chance.
Once Fernandes made it 3-0, Brighton were broken and done for the night. Stretched as they were and as comfortable as United’s position in the game had become, that move still described the versatility and range Solskjaer has in that area of the pitch. Credit to Greenwood for his run and cross – he was outstanding throughout – but United haven’t too often had players making the kind of run that Fernandes did. That they do now speaks to the nascent balance and understanding in that department, but also the many abilities within it.
And it feels broadly balanced, doesn’t it? Having been such a clunky outfit for so long, Manchester United’s midfield suddenly has the kind of rhythm which is always a sign of health. It’s no longer just three players stacked together in a random and unsatisfying way, it now looks daunting – a source of power, even.
No, United aren’t back and they haven’t rediscovered the inevitability that left them with Alex Ferguson, but this was one of the evenings when, as a rival fan, the old pangs of jealousy started to return.