Bruno Fernandes is right about what Donny van de Beek gives Manchester United
Even when he’s rested Bruno Fernandes can’t help but have a major impact on Manchester United.
With the FA Cup fourth round tie against Liverpool at Old Trafford in the balance Fernandes was called for as a super-sub and the rest is history. As sure as night follows days the influential Portuguese attacker was going to be decisive.
Fernandes rifled in his 28th goal for the club to seal a thrilling 3-2 win, but as he approaches the one-year anniversary of his arrival he displayed the other commodity he’s brought to the club post-match; his leadership.
The 26-year-old was talking about United’s squad depth when he picked out one player in particular for praise, the man who’d taken his place in the starting XI in Donny van de Beek.
When the £35million summer signing saw Fernandes getting stripped just after the hour mark he’d have known his number was up.
It’s been a frustrating first six months as a United player for Van de Beek. Before the FA Cup fixture Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted his new arrival wasn’t happy with his playing time, but in recent months this has become a very difficult team to force your way into.
The encouragement for Van de Beek was that this was the biggest game he has been handed in his embryonic United career. Starting in the pivotal attacking midfield role, replacing United’s fulcrum in Fernandes, he had plenty of responsibility on his shoulders.
The last time Van de Beek had started in that role ahead of Fernandes was at West Ham United at the start of December. United were dreadful in the first half and the former Ajax midfielder was a passenger. He was hooked at half-time and United completed a second-half comeback with Fernandes the driving force behind the turnaround.
Since then Van de Beek’s starts have come on the left of the forward line at Everton and in a deeper midfield role against Watford in the FA Cup third round.
Van de Beek had managed just 31 minutes in the nine Premier League games since the win at the London Stadium, remaining an unused substitute in seven of them. So against Liverpool there was pressure to perform and while he had to make way for Fernandes to take the glory, he produced a much more encouraging 66 minutes than his last performance in the position that brings so much creative responsibility.
In singing him out for praise post-match, Fernandes also struck upon the difference between the two players and why they bring a different approach to the No. 10 role in Solskjaer’s system.
“Donny did a great game, playing in the position I play. Watching him I think he moves really good, in the first half he had a little bit more of the ball,” he said.
“He played really well and it’s important for us. Everyone wants to play and If I was in the position of Donny I would not be happy at all, but the most important is doing what he does today, coming in and doing the best he can and helping the team.”
Leaving aside Fernandes’ leadership to praise Van de Beek and his understanding of his teammates’ position, his analysis to pick up on the Holland international’s movement is crucial.
Watching the two interpret that crucial role in United’s system, Fernandes is easier to spot, seeing more of the ball, tending to stay more central and a more regular part of the play.
He sees a lot of the ball because he tries the ambitious passes. They don’t all come off but when they do they often break defensive lines or send attackers in on goal. It’s high risk and high reward, but because he’s always trying the adventurous, either as a creator or as a goalscorer, he is in the game more often.
Van de Beek’s contributions in that position can be more subtle. He offers intelligent movement to try and find space, whereas Fernandes doesn’t always need space to get in the game.
The Dutch midfielder is also more about ball retention, having been schooled in the Ajax academy. He can spot a pass to create a chance but if it doesn’t appear to be on will retain possession, showing patience for the opportunity to come up.
Some of Van de Beek’s best work on Sunday came in drifting out to the left to combine with Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw. This was neat interplay based on short passes and clever movement, rather than threading passes through the eye of the needle.
There’s no right or wrong method for playing that advanced midfield role and it may suit Solskjaer and United that they have two players that can offer different ways of playing in that position.
Van de Beek is the most obvious replacement for Fernandes in this United team and there is no doubt the Portuguese playmaker will need a rest between now and the end of the season, given United continue to fight on three fronts and will be playing twice a week into March, at least.
It was no surprise that Fernandes found a way to steal the headlines against Liverpool, that is what he has done for United for the past 12 months. But his praise of Van de Beek also showed that this was a good day for discovering a Plan B when he needs a rest himself.