Manchester United might need a Bruno Fernandes backup plan next season
Opposition scouts looking for the source of Manchester United’s improvement in the second half of last season didn’t have to spend too long at Old Trafford or in front of their laptops to work out the primary contributor to that uplift.
United won 32 of their 66 points after Bruno Fernandes had signed for £47.5million in January, even though the Portuguese playmaker was only at the club for 14 of their 38 Premier League matches.
With Fernandes in the side United took 2.28 points per game. Without him they were averaging 1.41 points per game. That is a stratospheric difference and while it’s too simplistic to say the trend would have continued across a season in both regards, the fact that works out as 54 points in a campaign without Fernandes and 87 with him highlights the impact he had on the team.
The front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood were in fine form post-lockdown, the latter two in particular, but United’s improvement in front of goal owed so much to the creative presence of Fernandes, who claimed eight goals and seven assists in those 14 games.
So when teams look to stop United they know they have to stop Fernandes. In the final few weeks of the Premier League season we saw attempts at that begin, with teams defending narrowly against United, allowing the less influential full-backs space to receive the ball, congesting play in the middle where the 25-year-old wanted to operate.
Now all of United’s Premier League rivals have had the chance to see what Fernandes can do, where he influences games from and how he influences games, as well as the passes he likes to play. Teams will be drilled to cut off the supply line into him next season and make his own passing options more limited.
Fernandes is a player whose pass completion rate is relatively low, but that’s because he often tries difficult passes. It’s a risk considered worth it as when they do come off those passes tend to lead to promising openings.
That is something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his United coaches need to be aware of, devising their own Plan B to keep Fernandes in the game when the aim of the opposition is to take him out of it.
How they do this is where elite-level coaches earn their corn. They could look to drop Fernandes into a deeper role, changing his starting position to one wider on the pitch, dragging man markers out of their comfort zone, or use the extra attention on him to free up space for the other attacking talents, such as Paul Pogba and that rapid front three.
Speaking during United’s Europa League efforts in Cologne, Fernandes put his fine form in his first half-season with the club down to his previous experiences outside Portugal and the faith the club had invested in him.
“Maybe I think I play already in Italy, so I know how it is to be out of my country playing different leagues,” he said.
“Of course, the Premier League is completely different, but I have the confidence of my teammates, the coach, the staff, all the club, and I think things are going really well because when you have the confidence from everyone you can do your game and try and do your best.
“When a club pay for a player €55m you have confidence from the club! Of course, all the conversations I had with coach and with my teammates, and, as I say before, the coach all the time speak to me and said to do my game and do what I already did in Sporting, to have the same confidence, try same things and improve.
“So when you have that voice on your back to do your own thing and helping the team with that it’s easier for you.”
At some point it’s likely that confidence will waver, even if only slightly, especially if the opposition find ways to loosen his grip on proceedings. How United and Fernandes respond to that will be fascinating to watch during the new season.