When you pinpoint the catalyst of Manchester United’s upturn in the past 12 months there can only be one answer: Bruno Fernandes.
The Portuguese playmaker joined in a transfer worth up to £68million from Sporting Lisbon at the end of last January. A year on and neither Fernandes nor United have looked back.
Fernandes has turned United from top-four hopefuls into a side currently just off the top of the Premier League and battling to win their first title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
Bruno Fernandes was below par for Manchester United as they drew 0-0 at Liverpool
Fernandes struggled to get to grips with Liverpool in the top-of-the-table clash on Sunday
He was substituted in the final moments of the game – with Mason Greenwood replacing him
In his first 49 games for the club, the 26-year-old has a stunning 27 goals.
Delving into his domestic form, those figures read even better. From just 32 Premier League matches he has 19 goals and 14 assists – meaning he has a goal contribution (33 in total) of slightly more than one every game (1.03).
However, Fernandes wasn’t at his scintillating best on Sunday as United drew at bitter rivals Liverpool in a goalless top-of-the-table clash.
He was substituted late on, much to his frustration, after a subdued performance at Anfield. Fernandes spurned a golden chance to win the game late on for the visitors when his close-range effort was saved by Alisson Becker. He also came close to beating the Liverpool goalkeeper in the first half with a free-kick which just went wide.
Speaking post-match as a pundit, United’s legendary former captain Roy Keane was critical of their talisman.
‘When I look at the couple of chances United have created, [Marcus] Rashford never turned up,’ he told Sky Sports.
‘Fernandes didn’t play that well either, but they still created the two best chances of the game. Huge moments.’
Keane also criticised Fernandes for failing to turn up during United’s comprehensive Carabao Cup semi-final defeat by rivals Manchester City earlier this month, during which Fernandes and Co were thoroughly outclassed.
The United legend said: ‘It’s not easy winning football trophies. Fernandes has had great praise for the last few months and people have been comparing him to [Eric] Cantona etc. Fernandes didn’t really do much tonight.
‘The top players turn up in the big occasions. And that’s what the Cantona’s used to do – they get their hands on trophies. That’s where this team are a little bit short.’
United legend Roy Keane was critical of Fernandes’ performance during Sunday’s fixture
In the wake of Keane’s most recent comments, Keane’s former United team-mate Rio Ferdinand was quick to defend Fernandes, hailing him as ‘phenomenal’.
He told Stretford Paddock’s YouTube channel: ‘They looked off (against Liverpool) but we’re top of the league so I always look at it like that.
‘Yeah, there might be players off form, but if you’re still nicking results and you’re still winning and you’re still in a healthy position, that’s not a bad thing.
‘If we played this game and had zero shots on target and we looked like we had no threat at all, then I’d be a little bit concerned.
‘But I still think there were moments, it was just the final pass or timing of the pass in the final third maybe a couple of times, and then the finish, they were just a little bit off today.
‘But, listen, you can’t talk about [Bruno]. I wouldn’t say Bruno’s looked off recently. The geezer’s output has been phenomenal.’
Keane’s former United team-mate Rio Ferdinand has defended the ‘phenomenal’ Fernandes
Boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was also forced to defend his man, insisting at his press conference that Fernandes isn’t tired and doesn’t want a rest despite his below-par performance at Anfield.
Solskjaer added that Fernandes wouldn’t want to be left out of Wednesday’s trip to Fulham.
‘His form is very good, he was just voted player of the month,’ said the United boss. ‘He’s not tired, no chance.
‘He is one of the players that runs and covers the ground in every single game, he’s very good at recovering and recharging his batteries.
‘If he scored his free-kick or if it just had a little air on the ball when Luke put the cross in he’d have been lauded as best player in Premier League again.’
It would be foolish to criticise Fernandes as his impact at the club has indeed been phenomenal. However, stats do suggest he has struggled when United come up against their supposed ‘Big Six’ rivals (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham).
To be blunt – from a numbers standpoint it doesn’t make great reading. Since his Premier League debut last February, Fernandes has played eight times against the ‘Big Six’, scoring just twice. In comparison against the rest, Fernandes has 17 goals in 24 appearances.
The difference in output is huge with United’s No 18 goal-to-game ratio at 0.25 compared to 0.71 – a figure almost three times larger.
The disparity also shows when you take into account his minutes-per-goal ratio. The playmaker has racked up 656 minutes in eight matches against the ‘Big Six’ – equating to a goal every 328 minutes. Against the rest he has played 2,016 minutes to result in a goal every 119 minutes. The former ratio is almost three times as great.
Delving deeper and both of Fernandes’ goals against the ‘Big Six’ have come from the penalty spot – meaning he is yet to score in open play against any of his toughest Premier League opposition. The first was at Tottenham in a 1-1 draw last June and also against the same opposition in a dreadful 6-1 home thrashing back in October.
Fernandes saw a golden chance to give United victory denied by the feet of Alisson Becker
He has only scored twice against United’s ‘Big Six’ rivals – both were penalties against Spurs
BRUNO FERNANDES ‘BIG SIX’ VS THE REST PREMIER LEAGUE STATS
AGAINST THE ‘BIG SIX’
Games played: 8
Minutes played: 656
Goals (penalties): 2
Goals + Assists: 4
Minutes-per-goal or assist: 164
Chances created per game: 2.3
Shots per game: 3.2
Successful passes per game: 34
Tackles per game: 1.2
AGAINST THE REST
Games played: 24
Minutes played: 2,016
Goals (penalties): 7
Goals + Assists: 29
Minutes-per-goal or assist: 70
Chances created per game: 3
Shots per game: 3.6
Successful passes per game: 48
Tackles per game: 1.9
The 26-year-old has proven to be a greater attacking threat against the perceived ‘lesser’ sides, with seven of his 17 goals coming from the penalty spot.
It’s not just the goals output that is down, it’s assists too. Fernandes has just two to his name against the ‘Big Six’ and 12 against the rest. It means he averages an assist every 328 minutes, while it only takes him every 168 minutes to replicate that against others.
It would be foolish to say Fernandes goes missing in the big games though. The eye test alone shows he is still pivotal to everything good about Solskjaer’s side.
Yes he may average per game less chances (2.3 to 3), shots (3.2 to 3.6), successful passes (34 to 48) and tackles (1.2 to 1.9) but there are mitigating factors for this.
First of all he is playing against better opponents who can shackle his talents. That can be done via denying him space or stopping his team-mates from passing him the ball in areas where he will be a lot more dangerous.
Fernandes only has two assists in the Premier League against ‘Big Six’ clubs too – including one for Anthony Martial during the Manchester derby last season, which United won 2-0
Secondly, he can’t do it all by himself. While his goal output may be disappointing for a player of his calibre against the elite he has still been creating chances for his team-mates, which they have failed to capitalise on – meaning his assist numbers are lower than perhaps his play merits.
And this in turn, comes to another point – the tactics deployed by Solskjaer. United may be top of the league but they are very much a work in progress and everyone knows that.
As a team, the Red Devils are yet to beat a ‘Big Six’ rival this season – a stat that needs to change if they are to have any chance of winning the Premier League.
Against Spurs they were thumped 6-1, they drew 0-0 with Chelsea, lost 1-0 to Arsenal, drew 0-0 with City before Sunday’s goalless affair against Liverpool too. The former four fixtures were all at home, with only the weekend’s clash being played away from Old Trafford.
And that 6-1 hammering by Tottenham has altered Solskjaer’s tactical approach against this type of opposition. That game saw Solskjaer attacking as he played a 4-2-3-1 formation. In midfield Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba were paired as a two with Mason Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford and Martial in front of them.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has changed his tactics in big games since losing 6-1 to Tottenham
Fred (left) and Scott McTominay (right) are often his preferred midfield pairing in big games
However, despite taking a second-minute lead (through Fernandes’ penalty) things quickly imploded as Spurs were 3-1 ahead after 30 minutes and with a man advantage following Martial’s red card.
United were carved open at will and Solskjaer has learned from that by going for substance over style ever since. Scott McTominay and Fred have been his preferred central midfield pairing since then because they provide a better defensive screen for his side. However, it means United lose the creativity of Pogba more centrally – although he has featured out wide in these games since.
A more attacking approach would pose greater defensive problems for opposition teams but would leave United more exposed themselves – a la the Tottenham game.
It’s a delicate act for Solskjaer but to get the best out of Fernandes he must also considering rotating him more. The £40m elephant in the room in Donny van de Beek has barely got a chance to showcase his talents in the Premier League this term, starting just twice from his 10 games played. He was an unused substitute once again during Sunday’s draw at Liverpool too.
Fernandes – and the same could be said of Rashford – has looked a little bit sluggish since the festive period began, as evidenced by one goal and one assist in his last four league matches. It would be wise of Solskjaer to rotate where possible to allow him to regain his legs.
Manchester United’s next league clash against a ‘Big Six’ side is a trip to Arsenal on January 30 – a perfect opportunity for Fernandes to silence the sceptics.
Solskjaer needs to start incorporating Donny van de Beek more into his first-team plans too
Fernandes will be hoping to silence his critics on January 30 when United travel to Arsenal