“Please, Mr. Matic, get out to the ball,” cried an anguished Rio Ferdinand as BT Sport replayed Oliver Burke’s winning goal for Sheffield United at Old Trafford.
It came after a passage of lacklustre Manchester United play that Ferdinand insisted would not have been allowed in “yesteryear”, in which players ambled back, stood stock still or pointed in vain before Burke fired in a shot via Axel Tuanzebe’s knee.
He took his shot just in time – there was one Manchester United player sprinting back to challenge in a desperate attempt to lift his ailing side. No prizes for guessing who that was.
Bruno Fernandes will celebrate one year as a United player on Saturday. His transfer from Sporting CP for an initial fee of £47million in January 2020 came after a similar abject home defeat for United, on that occasion against Burnley.
That 2-0 loss was a shock only in historical terms given the 20-time champions of England were on a dismal run at the time, the latest setback making it four defeats in seven. Things were different on Wednesday, when Sheffield United ended their hosts’ 13-match Premier League unbeaten streak and prevented the Red Devils from returning to the top of the table.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had reached the halfway stage of this campaign 12 points better off than in 2019-20, and 23 points closer to the leaders. There has been undeniable progress in the past 12 months, inspired by Fernandes. Across all competitions, Fernandes has been involved in 45 goals – more than any other player for a Premier League club.
Only Harry Maguire (53) has made more competitive appearances for United than the Portuguese (52), but the former Sporting CP star has scored the most goals (28), assisted his teammates the most often (17) and created the most goalscoring chances (136).
Fernandes has been a transformative signing, in the mould of Eric Cantona and Robin van Persie – but, crucially, without the trophies. When it comes to the league title, he has made United believe again. But as doubts return over his team’s credentials, is belief alone enough?
It was a very good year
Fernandes ended 2020 winning his fourth Premier League Player of the Month award, becoming the first to get that many in a calendar year. For that award, he has already matched the tallies of United greats Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo and is just one behind Wayne Rooney and Van Persie.
He’s been directly involved in 33 goals in his first 34 appearances (19 goals, 14 assists), a figure bettered only by Andrew Cole (41) in the history of the Premier League – all this despite not being involved in a goal in any of his last four appearances in the competition.
From his debut on February 1, 2020 until January 28 this year, he’s had the most direct goal involvements in the competition (33); only Kevin De Bruyne had more assists (15 > 14) and only Mohamed Salah more goals (20 > 19). In fact, the impact of the attacking midfielder has been so great that Manchester United have won more points in the Premier League than any other side since his arrival (72) – one ahead of rivals City (71).
Such were his talismanic efforts on the pitch during 2019-20, Fernandes was crowned Man Utd’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year, becoming the second Portuguese player to win the award after the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo. Since its inception in 1987-88, no player has won the award having played as few games in a season as Fernandes’ 22 in all competitions in 2019-20.
So integral has he been to Solskjaer’s plans that he has missed just two games in 2020-21 – domestic cup wins over Brighton and Hove Albion, and Watford – and, when he was finally given a rest against Liverpool in the FA Cup last weekend, he promptly came off the bench to score the winning free-kick.
United’s heart and soul
Beyond the goals and assists output, Fernandes, as the odd defensive sprint highlights, is a player who likes to be involved. Examine shot-ending sequence involvements in the Premier League from his debut to January 28 this year – that’s a measure of how players contribute to the creation of shots in open play – and only De Bruyne (220) is above Fernandes (212).
For such sequences ending in goals, Fernandes is top of the pile on 33, five above anyone else. Similarly, if you look at multi chance involvements (the number of unique shot-ending sequences in open play, where the player in question created the chance and was involved in the build-up), Fernandes (21) is second only to Jack Grealish (24) – the heartbeat of an exciting Aston Villa.
Former United captain Bryan Robson sees someone else in Fernandes, telling Stats Perform:
“After the first six games, I couldn’t give him any bigger complement than say he’s the closest to Paul Scholes I’ve seen,” he told Stats Perform. “The way he turns with his back to play, the vision he’s got, the touch on the ball, the great goals he scores…”
“Every time he gets on the ball, his first thought is to look forward and try and put somebody in. He’s so quick on little one-twos in and around the last third. He’s a bit like De Bruyne. He doesn’t lazily pass it backwards; he’s always looking to try and hurt the opposition.
“I like that he demands from his teammates around. It’s okay demanding, but if they can see the work and effort you are putting in, then you get a good response.”
Not just ‘Penandes’
Many Fernandes detractors will argue that his goal tally is inflated due to the propensity that Manchester United are awarded penalties.
The Portuguese has scored nine times in the Premier League from the penalty spot since his debut, but he’s still scored 10 league goals when excluding spot-kicks. He’s posted a non-penalty Expected Goals/90 average of 0.24, which is just below that of Kevin De Bruyne (0.26) over that period. To put this simply, even if you take away penalties, he’s getting in positions to score a goal every four games from open play – a decent return for a midfielder.
Fernandes has added a new dimension to United’s attacking play and they have certainly found a player that can unpick opposition defences with the regularity that they have so often missed in recent years.
He has an Expected Assists total of 6.5 from open play since his Premier League debut – only Jack Grealish (6.8) and Kevin De Bruyne (7.5) can boast a higher level of creative input for their teams since February 1, 2020.
In the 12 months before Fernandes’ arrival at the club, Manchester United’s best creative player from open play was Marcus Rashford with an open play Expected Assists tally of 3.9 – nearly half that of Fernandes’ total in his first year at the Red Devils.
After that shock defeat to bottom club Sheffield United in midweek, United find themselves a point off Manchester City with their rivals still having a game in hand. With their next four league games coming against tricky opposition all placed between 5th and 11th, this period could make or break their title challenge.
Fernandes has spent a year making United better, but Solskjaer’s men still rely on him to lead by example to get results. He has dragged the Red Devils back into a title battle, but he cannot win it alone.
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