It’s ironic that Manchester United simply haven’t seen Bruno Fernandes in any position other than the No.10 role since his debut for the club.
It was in that 0-0 draw against Wolves in February 2020, what now seems like a lifetime ago, that Fernandes played alongside Fred in a two-man central midfield once Andreas Pereira had gone off on 72 minutes. Mason Greenwood joined the front four and United, who didn’t have Paul Pogba available at the time, pushed for a goal but it didn’t come.
Fernandes looked a little raw, and like he was trying too hard, on that occasion, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer managed to unlock his new Portuguese playmaking signing in the subsequent weeks.
By fielding a midfield pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay, the Norwegian got Fernandes into the positions where he can cause damage and the difference to United’s attacking output was stark.
He quickly found his feet, with a goal in each of his third, fourth and fifth United appearances, finishing the season with 12 strikes for the club.
He was unaffected by the three-month Covid-enforced break that football underwent at the breakout of the pandemic, he continued his incredible momentum to win United’s Sir Matt Busby award – the coveted player of the season prize, voted for by the fans, which Fernandes has recently retained in his second season.
Some watching United criticised Fernandes for a perceived drop-off in his form towards the end of last season, though it’s fair to say the 26-year-old had set a fairly high bar.
Still, the criticism was fair in many ways and it was telling that Fernandes struggled to assert himself on the summer’s European Championship with Portugal.
He was shifted about by national team boss Fernando Santos, playing on either flank at times rather than in his natural No.10 position.
There isn’t much of that chopping and changing from Solskjaer when it comes to Fernandes’ role, though the recent suggestion that the United boss is ready to switch to 4-3-3 with two progressive attacking midfielders is an intriguing one.
Many believe this is Solskjaer’s way of deploying both Fernandes and Pogba together in front of a defensive midfielder, arguing it could ‘unlock’ the Frenchman, who throughout his time at Old Trafford has been shoe-horned into more restricted roles, or a wide position.
That relies on Pogba staying at United, of course, amid ongoing doubts over his future.
Fernandes is definitely staying, however, so the new formation could simply mean United are putting all their eggs in his basket and enhancing the environment around their Portuguese ‘magnifico’. There is no doubt Fernandes is United’s creative spark and their talisman but, despite the arrival of Jadon Sancho, that still means there is a heavy burden on his shoulders.
When he doesn’t play well, United don’t play particularly well. Just look at their run at the climax of last season (when Solskjaer’s side won just one of their final six matches, and Fernandes scored just once from open play – a fortuitous deflected strike in a defeat by Liverpool – and there’s the evidence.
Sometimes, United can ask too much of Bruno Fernandes.
Sancho’s arrival, other transfers and a tweak of Solskjaer’s formation could help them craft the ideal framework around their lynchpin, to help him reach another level in the coming campaign.
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