Opinion is unanimous. Manchester United have been galvanised and it’s down to one man. A team that had looked washed-up, out of ideas, and in need of a major overhaul all of a sudden look unbeatable. The man in question is Bruno Fernandes. Since moving from Sporting Clube de Portugal to Manchester United in January, he’s scored goals. Lots of goals. He’s provided assists. Lots of assists. He’s assumed leadership of the team. He’s made them tick.
So how has a Portuguese midfielder plucked from the relative obscurity of the Liga NOS had such a transformative effect on arguably the biggest football club in the world?
It would be disingenuous, even for long-time champions of Fernandes’ very special skillset, to claim such a momentous impact was predictable. That said, a confluence of factors gave strong indications that the former Sporting captain was well equipped to prosper at Old Trafford.
People have been surprised at how smoothly Fernandes has settled into his new environment, but he has been through the process of having to acclimatise to a new country, a different language and fresh surroundings before. Born in Maia on the outskirts of Porto, Fernandes moved to the Italian lower leagues at just 17 years of age. A steady upward trajectory took in moves to Udinese and Sampdoria, and by the time he returned to Portugal, he came with the experience of 119 Serie A matches under his belt despite being only 22. Signing for Sporting in the summer of 2017, despite having to adapt to a different football culture again (he had never previously played senior football in Portugal), he hit the ground running, dominating games from the outset.
Having twice surmounted the challenges thrown up by starting anew – initially as a teenager in far-off environs with his personality still being formed – the move to northwest England as a mature adult at the peak of his abilities would hold no fears.
Portuguese football is highly asymmetrical. Benfica, Porto and Sporting are miles ahead of all other teams in terms of wealth, potential and trophy count. Therefore, even a Sporting team going through a dismal period in their history, in most of their games face opposition set up to frustrate and stifle them. To prise open massed ranks of defence you need players who can do something different. So common is this scenario in Portugal, the local football jargon has a name for such players. They call them ‘a tin opener’.
For two and half seasons Fernandes made it his business to become not only his team’s tin opener, but the best tin opener in the league. His long-range shooting is eye-catching, but his most outstanding asset is his passing. Bruno routinely picks out teammates with a clever flick, a piercing pass or a raking ball delivered with such acumen, imagination and speed of thought that it leaves you open-mouthed. When there’s no way through he seems to find one, either with a spectacular goal or an inventive pass.
Despite Manchester United’s fallow period since Alex Ferguson’s retirement, taking points off the Red Devils still comprises a significant scalp for many of the EPL’s less heralded teams, which leads to the sorts of problems being posed that Bruno Fernandes has spent much of the last 30 months of his career solving. A tin still has to be opened, whether it’s got Tondela or Watford on the label.
Licence to kill
The recent history of Sporting can be loosely compared to United’s in one respect. Both are clubs with a glorious past that have been badly underachieving. Sporting have had a particularly unstable time of it. Just one of Fernandes’s teammates when he made his Sporting debut against Desportivo das Aves on 6 August 2017 was in the side when Bruno played his last game for the club against Marítimo on 27 January 2020, centre-back Sebastián Coates. On top of a forever changing team around him, Fernandes had to work under five different coaches during his time wearing the green and white, in a variety of tactical setups. To be frank, there was often no discernible game plan, other than the “strategy” to pass it to the captain and let him decide.
As such, Fernandes had complete licence to attack, shoot, create as he saw fit, which helps explain his phenomenal return in terms of goals (63) and assists (30) in 132 matches for the Portuguese club. Fernandes honed his already well-developed attacking attributes during his spell in Lisbon, and with a better quality of teammate to link up with upon making the switch to the Premier League, becoming United’s creator-in-chief was simply a continuation of the role he played at Sporting.
As alluded to above, Sporting are going through a turbulent spell in their history. In May 2018 a shocking incident took place that brought the club to its knees. A group of 50 ultras broke into the team’s Alcochete training complex and violently attacked the players and staff. Many of the squad, initially including Fernandes, unilaterally rescinded their contracts. The captain subsequently changed his mind, as did star striker Bas Dost, but the core of the squad was ripped apart as goalkeeper Rui Patrício, midfielder William Carvalho, winger Gelson Martins – all Portugal internationals – walked out, as did promising youth players Rafael Leão and Daniel Podence.
Sporting somehow got back on their feet, and no-one did more to make that happen than Fernandes. A disappointing league campaign was appeased by winning the two domestic cups. Lifting the Portuguese Cup in the traditional season finale against FC Porto at the famous Jamor Stadium was an especially emotional triumph for the team and the fans, having fallen to a shock defeat to minnows Aves in the previous year’s final, which took place just days after the Alcochete attack with the entire institution still in a collective state of trauma.
The manner of that Cup victory also emphasised how much of a one-man team Sporting had become. Fernandes scored in every round, including two stunning strikes in each leg of the semi-final win over Benfica. Bruno was the undisputed leader of the side, his courage and unremitting work rate setting the example for his teammates, even before we talk about his virtuoso talents. On the triumphant coach ride back to Lisbon, Fernandes took the microphone on live TV to interview jubilant defender Stefan Ristovski, asking the Macedonian what was going through his head: “Don’t leave captain, otherwise we’re f**ked!” was Ristovski’s candid response. But it was clear Fernandes had outgrown Sporting.
At 25 years of age, Bruno breaks the mould of Portuguese footballers who try their luck abroad, insofar as he was the finished article, both in terms of being a complete midfielder, but perhaps more importantly, as a strong and fully matured personality. Manchester United have acquired a footballer and a person who knows exactly where he is going, and whose already rich tapestry of experience has perfectly prepared him for a starring role on the biggest of stages. That and the fact he’s a football genius.