On the bleakest night in Bruges, when Manchester United fans got soaked in the mostly uncovered away end at the hard to reach stadium and their much changed team played poorly in a modest match where the ball flew around like a 50 pence flyaway, one of the few bright spots was the late cameo by substitute Bruno Fernandes.
The Portuguese played the final 10 minutes in the 1-1 draw and immediately looked the best player on the field. He works hard, he’s skilful, he links play, he attacks. United had been especially bad in the first half hour when they went behind and their defence wobbled against the pace of Emmanuel Dennis, but Anthony Martial’s away goal sparked an improvement and United hold an advantage going into next week’s second leg.
Fernandes has only played 190 minutes for United and he’s yet to score, but he’s had an encouraging start. Bruges was his sixth appearance in this season’s Europa League – five of them for Sporting Lisbon in which he scored five goals and set up three more. United could yet meet Sporting, but if Fernandes is to have that kind of transformative impact at his new club then he’ll significantly improve a stuttering side.
United have faltered in the areas where Bruno excels. Corners have been poor, but Monday’s for Harry Maguire’s first United league goal was perfect. Maguire should have been more of an aerial threat in the opponents’ area, but he needs balls of the type Fernandes can deliver. The Portugal international can improve all those around him and his instinct to attack and shoot is welcomed. Fans have taken to him because he appears to be a significant upgrade on Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, though there’s a case to improve the obvious ‘Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!’ chant in his honour.
Manchester United averaged a shot every 2 minutes after Bruno Fernandes came on, compared to every 10 minutes before.
Willing to try his luck. pic.twitter.com/MTsMFwL3zy
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) February 20, 2020
He’s settling into life well in Manchester and it helps that he can speak perfect English, that he’s already played away from his home country before, and already knew Diogo Dalot. There are several Portuguese speakers or players who’ve played in Portugal already at United. Fernandes enjoyed his trip to Marbella to settle in with his new team mates, the break judged to be a success. The first thing Ed Woodward said, half in jest, to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when he saw him after Monday’s win at Stamford Bridge was “Marbella again?”
Marcus Rashford’s stunning effort at Chelsea in October’s League Cup aside, United have struggled with free-kicks all season. Rashford initially couldn’t find his range and sent efforts flying into the Scoreboard End. Juan Mata, scorer of a late, great free-kick in Turin last season, can do it and he linked up well with Fernandes in Bruges. Mata should have taken the late free-kick in the last Manchester derby. It was a chance to win the tie, not just the game, but Fred hit it tamely in the wall – to much frustration.
Fernandes has been taking free kicks too – so far without success though he hit the post at Chelsea. He’s already scored three direct free-kicks for Sporting this season, more than any United player, and scored six match winning goals. Fernandes has been a versatile game-changer at the peak of his powers whose signing lifted United after the driest of January’s where the team lost four times. Shirts with Fernandes’ name on became immediate best sellers, a punt on the hope of a brighter future with the type of midfielder United have been missing. He can play as a box-to-box midfielder; he can play as a ten in the 4-2-3-1 role United often play or as one of the attacking midfielders in a 4-3-3.
Solskjaer wants more runners to support his attackers, he wants midfielders arriving on the edge of the box when United attack. It hasn’t happened enough this season, but the stage is there for Fernandes to perform. It’s true that there were high hopes for Shinji Kagawa in this role when he signed from Borussia Dortmund in 2012, but the Japanese lacked the physicality which Fernandes has.
The stock of Lingard and Pereira remains low among fans. Lingard doesn’t score or assist, Pereira seems to have the quality to be a squad player rather than the starter Fernandes is expected to be. Paul Pogba (or more his agent) has become persona non grata with many fans, a non-influence on the pitch this season because of injury and a negative influence because United think his agent is working to get him out of Manchester to cut another deal, while all his teammates have long known that he wants to leave.
It’s not healthy when the main man in the dressing room, the most talented and influential player, wants out. As each week passes, fewer United fans will be sad to see Pogba leave. It’s a great shame and he’ll argue that the dream he was sold wasn’t the reality, but he’s also partly culpable. At least there’s Fernandes and ideally a further midfield addition, with United watching Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish. Sancho, 19 has scored 16 and set up 17 for Dortmund this season, Grealish, 24, has scored nine and set up eight. Signing either will be difficult.
United have lost eight league games so far, a poor record, but it wasn’t just the results. United failed to score in seven of those eight defeats – a point Solskjaer made after the game in Bruges. The team went behind and stayed behind, though Pogba did have an effect when he came on in the dire defeat at Watford. United still couldn't score though. With Fernandes, a £47 million signing to start with, their attacking threat is strengthened considerably, as is their ability to break down the lower placed teams whom United have struggled to defeat. That must change on Sunday at home to Watford.