United are coming off the back of consecutive wins against ‘Big Six’ rivals Tottenham and Manchester City, fixtures in which they took the game to their opponents and stifled them under the pressure of relentless pace and counter attacking.
A big part of each of those performances was the central midfield partnership between Scott McTominay and Fred, giving the team a solid foundation.
Following the October international break and the dismal defeat to Newcastle, United have been a transformed side when the pair have played together. It was telling that a midfield presence was sorely lacking when McTominay was injured for the draws against Sheffield United and Aston Villa, when Fred was instead partnered by the less equipped Andreas Pereira.
It was no coincidence that McTominay’s return saw a different United, one with far better shape and structure, and where Fred was not tasked with doing the job of two players.
Both players were exceptional in both of the wins that have come in the last few days. Breaking them up therefore isn’t really an option, even for the returning Pogba.
Solskjaer explained prior to the Manchester derby that he expects Pogba, who has resumed outdoor training on grass following his foot problem, to be back in action before the New Year.
The Frenchman remains United’s best player, but putting him back into an orthodox central midfield position, the role he had been occupying ahead of Fred prior to getting injured, is likely to be detrimental to the overall balance of the team.
The answer, however, seems obvious. Pogba should return to the side in a more attacking position, filling a ‘number 10’ role that would preserve the solidity behind him and allow the 26-year-old to influence games in a more direct way with his clear talent.
Pogba has never really thrived at Old Trafford in a conventional midfield pairing. It weighs him down with too much defensive responsibility, makes taking risks with the ball that could create chances much more dangerous, and appears to not be something he particularly enjoys.
At international level, he has usually had N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi with him, giving him greater freedom to play the way he knows best. That could now be the case at club level as well.
United’s biggest weakness this season has been breaking down weaker opponents and unlocking deep-lying defences when the onus is on them to dictate possession. If Pogba is played further forward, it could go a long way to solving that problem.
The top four is in sight after back-to-back wins, so Solskjaer must do everything he can to preserve the momentum, and avoid anything that might risk derailing it.