This article is taken from the RoM charity season preview which is still available to download on PDF or buy on Kindle. Following his hattrick on the opening day of the season against Leeds, the prediction of Bruno Fernandes being our brightest spark for the season ahead is looking good.
There was something particularly sad about how Portugal used Bruno Fernandes at Euro 2020. In around 18 months at Old Trafford, Bruno has proven to be completely transformational. While far from an original thought, it is not since Eric Cantona arrived almost 30 years ago that one player has enjoyed such an immediate and compounding impact on the club. He has helped United achieve better results and brought other players along with him on a journey towards more consistent excellence. He delivers and absolutely demands it of his colleagues.
There is a sense in which the player is making up for lost time: a failed sojourn to Italy with Novara, Udinese and Sampdoria resulted in the player returning to Portugal and Sporting in 2017. At 26 Bruno has played just 14 Champions League games for Sporting and United – just two of those in the latter stages of the competition. His talent commands a bigger stage than it has been afforded thus far.
Yet, none of that mattered to Portugal coach Fernando Santos, whose philosophy is built on the idea that football is won and lost in the mistakes that your opponent makes, not the creativity you demonstrate. To be fair, Santos has a decent record, though there is not much point boasting a wonderfully talented squad if it is put to sub-optimal use.
Bruno spent much of the summer either chasing lost causes as a late impact sub or operating well within himself in a deeper role. It was not becoming of one of the world’s most creative midfielders. So, while Bruno’s domestic partner-in-crime Paul Pogba enjoyed a personally excellent tournament, the Portuguese midfielder might wonder what comes next at international level with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar just 18 months away.
None of this is a concern for United, of course, where Fernandes is the lynchpin of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s rebuild. United’s almost successful campaign in 2020-21 was built on Bruno’s numbers. In all competitions: 28 goals, 18 assists, and a barely believable 166 ‘shot creating actions’ – a number which actually excludes the EFL and FA Cups. World class, all of it.
But the player’s magic isn’t just in his output, impressive though that is. He’s a unique style today… and probably also in the history of the game. In delaying a deal for Fernandes during the summer of 2019, United’s scouts reportedly expressed concerns about the player’s propensity to give away the ball. Indeed, his pass completion rate last season at 73% is in just the 36th percentile among all attacking midfielders in the top 5 Euro Leagues. That is dreadful if read on its own. But Bruno is in the 99th percentile for passes made and 96th percentile for expected assists. He wants the ball and he takes incredible risks with it to generate some magnificent rewards.
“He creates chances, scores goals, takes risks,” Solskjaer once noted. “Any United player should be allowed to do that and be brave enough to do it. He sees the pass. Sometimes I might tear my hair out and say that there’s an easier pass but you can’t take that away from Bruno. You want him to be the X-factor.”
With it, there’s no doubt Bruno has brought fans along with him on a remarkable 18 months. While the player may not live and breathe United’s history that, for example, Ander Herrera so fully embraced, Bruno’s visible desire to win equals that of the fans who will shortly be returning to Old Trafford. It is ok to give a crap about the club again. To feel that perhaps, just perhaps, we are going places, even if the ownership remains toxic and silverware is just out of reach. With Bruno in tow, there is hope for a more successful future and if nothing else a guarantee of entertainment.
What then of the season to come? Bruno’s place in the side is secure, of course, but United will have to build around one of the club’s few world class players if Solskjaer’s side is to progress. Jadon Sancho’s creative output will take some of the burden off Bruno’s shoulders, perhaps freeing the Portuguese player from the increasing amount of attention he commands from opposition defenders.
It is important however to remove at least some of the physical demands: Fernandes played 58 matches for United last season and another 14 for the national team. During the run-in of both the 19-20 and 20-21 campaigns Bruno looked physically and mentally shot. Burnout or injury cannot be that far away. It would certainly help if Pogba could stay fit for any length of time or perhaps if the manger could bring himself to trust Donny van de Beek just a modicum more.
With United competing for four trophies in the season to come and the Nations League and World Cup Qualifiers at international level, Bruno will be in-demand. United need him involved and at his best. The fans want him on the pitch as much as possible and for many years to come. That new contract cannot be signed too quickly.
Whatever the new season brings – Bruno will surely be United’s brightest spark. We love him for it.