Fernandes' fast start suggests Man Utd are unlikely to miss Pogba

Pogba Fernandes GFX
The Portugal international has helped create an air of optimism around Old Trafford and helped fill the hole left by his new team-mate's absence

Bruno Fernandes’ early performances for Manchester United have given the Red Devils hope as they head towards the end of the season. Not only that a campaign that has verged close to disaster on a number of occasions could end in some kind of success, but that life after Paul Pogba may not be so difficult after all.

There were reasons to doubt the potential of Fernandes’ impact at United when he arrived in January.

For one, the Old Trafford outfit had turned down the chance to sign him in the summer, as had plenty of other clubs with loftier ambitions. Why, if he was so good, was he only moving to the big time at 25, well past the age when the best Portuguese players tend to leave their homeland?

Of course, Fernandes had already attempted to crack a bigger, more reputable league once before.

Around seven years ago he moved from the side that developed him as a youth player, Boavista, to Italy. Novara, Udinese and Sampdoria all saw enough talent to take a chance on him as he matured, only for him to return to Portugal, for Sporting, in 2017.

It only took a couple of years in the Portuguese limelight for his talent to bubble to the surface, with Tottenham having narrowly missed out on his signature in the summer of 2019.

In his five appearances in a United shirt thus far, Fernandes has been a shining light amid the darkness. Two goals and two assists have helped Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team to three wins and two draws since his arrival - a run that leaves them in, what is for now, a Champions League spot in the Premier League and facing a very winnable Europa League last-16 tie against Austrian minnows LASK Linz.

"He looks like he has brought this team to life. He has made a team that did not look that watchable at times look exciting and very watchable right now," eulogised Paul Scholes in the aftermath of Fernandes' latest star turn against Club Brugges on Thursday. Scholes has been one of United's most vocal critics in the fallow period since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, so for him to single out the Portugal international for praise he must be doing something right.

"What do I like about Bruno?" he continued. "Everything so far. Creativity. His awareness on the pitch. Before the ball comes to him he knows what's around him. He's sensational."

Bruno Fernandes GFX

Anyone unaware of the week-to-week progress of United could have been forgiven for thinking that Scholes was talking about Paul Pogba. Those same qualities are why United felt the need to spend €105 million (£89m/$116m) to bring him back to Old Trafford three-and-a-half years ago. To say it has not worked out would be an understatement.

So is Fernandes the ready-made replacement for Pogba should the France World Cup winner complete what is looking an ever more likely departure this summer?

The return of Scott McTominay to fitness, coupled with the improvement in both Fred and Nemanja Matic, means that there is a workable midfield trio that can be assembled. A runner, a deep-lying screener and a playmaker - the latter being Fernandes - is a sensible combination.

Pogba never managed to settle into any one of those positions, and given his agent Mino Raiola is constantly agitating to get his client a move away, a switch to either Madrid or Turin seems to benefit both parties.

Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba

On the other hand, the improvement ignited by Fernandes also allows for the reintegration of Pogba to be less fraught. If Solskjaer and Pogba agree to compromise on the rest of the season - the Frenchman gives his all, out of self-interest if nothing else - then the club has a far more technically able and threatening proposition. For one, it mitigates the injury to Marcus Rashford in terms of attacking output if both Fernandes and Pogba are on the pitch to load the bullets for the likes of Anthony Martial and Odion Ighalo.

But looking further forward, with the likes of Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Jadon Sancho on United's shopping list for the summer, the prospect of Fernandes being deployed alongside some of England's best creative talents is a cause for huge optimism should he be able to maintain his current level of performance.

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For now Fernandes' eyes will be firmly on spearheading United to another three points against Everton on Sunday. Solskjaer returns to Goodison Park almost a year on from his lowest ebb as United boss, with his side turning in a disastrous display to lose 4-0 to the Toffees. In a twist of fate, United's last win on Merseyside against the Blues in January 2018 came thanks to one of Pogba's better peformances in a red shirt under Jose Mourinho.

Beat Carlo Ancelotti's side this time and United will find themselves just one point and one place off Chelsea in fourth. With Frank Lampard's side stuttering, a place in next season's Champions League - regardless of Manchester City's fate at the Court of Arbitration for Sport - is well within United's grasp.

Fernandes is at the heart of United’s new-found optimism. There is no point expecting him to become world class in a few months, if ever, but a technically talented, aggressive goalscoring midfielder is much of what the club has lacked with Pogba’s injuries and conspicuous lack of form. After years of studied caution under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, and Solskjaer’s rudimentary approach to tactics, it is a rare treat to watch an intelligent and positive presence in United's line-up again.