Bruno Fernandes: Should the incoming Manchester United manager build the team around the Portuguese playmaker?
Ever since arriving from Sporting CP in a deal worth €55 million, Bruno Fernandes has been a gamechanger for Manchester United. Rewind to January 2020, United were sitting fifth in the Premier League table, six points off fourth and 14 points behind Leicester City in third. Champions League qualification was looking highly unlikely. Bruno almost single-handedly lifted the side into a third-place finish after rounding off the season on a 14-match unbeaten run in the Premier League. He proved to be the catalyst and notched 20 goal involvements in 22 appearances in all competitions. Fernandes became the first player in Premier League history to win the league’s Player of the Month award four times in a single calendar year.
Bruno’s arrival was a breath of fresh air to an abject United side. The team was crying out for a player of his quality and character in the post-Fergie era. “Bruno’s the leader, leader by example, leader by what he does when he gives the ball away, sprints straight after it, every time the team is on the ball, he wants it, he looks to play a pass that matters”, said Gary Neville after the midfielder’s first year at the club.
Fernandes continued his brilliant form by scoring 28 goals and providing 17 assists during the 2020/21 season, as United finished second in the league and runners-up in the Europa League after losing the final on penalties.
The signs were there that United were ready to challenge for the title under Ole Gunnar Solskjær in 2021/22, and hopes were only boosted by the summer acquisitions of Jadon Sancho, Raphaël Varane and the sensational return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford.
Fast forward eight months, United are limping their way to their fifth successive trophyless season. With interim manager Ralph Rangnick at the helm, United sit in sixth place in the league and have been knocked out of all cup competitions. The team is coming under heavy criticism from top to bottom, including Bruno who has suffered a dip in form leaving fans frustrated with recent performances.
With news breaking out this week that Fernandes is close to signing a new long-term contract with the Red Devils, we take a look at whether the incoming Manchester United manager next summer should look to build his team around Bruno.
The primary position Fernandes has occupied during his career is the number 10 position in a 4-2-3-1 formation, whether in a Sporting, United or Portugal shirt. He also has the technical capacity to play as an advanced 8 in a 4-3-3. The graphic below highlights Bruno’s heatmap at Manchester United this season. As you can see, he covers most areas of the pitch and is more concentrated on the left side of the playmaker role due to United sustaining more attacks from that side, with Luke Shaw/Alex Telles and Jadon Sancho.
Bruno’s main qualities are his key passes, quick thinking, chance creation, long shots and off the ball work rate. Since his Premier League debut, he has lead the Manchester United team in goals (35), assists (25), shots (230), chances created (201) and passes into the final third (1,438).
He always looks to find space around the penalty area to cause damage to the opponent. Here, Bruno drops between the lines in the 10 position to receive the ball from McTominay and drag the CB out.
Fernandes controls the ball, feeds it to Ronaldo and makes a run towards the space created inside the Atalanta box.
Ronaldo shifts it to Greenwood who find Fernandes in the box. The midfielder produces a fine back-heel flick for Ronaldo to blast it in the corner.
Another important aspect of Bruno’s game is his quick thinking and vision to pull-off passes that only a few players in his position can produce.
Bruno pounces to gather a loose ball in the middle of the park with Ronaldo and Rashford in support.
The safe option is to pass it to Ronaldo and continue the attack from there. But Bruno’s awareness means he spots the gap between the defenders and plays in Rashford with a one-touch outside the boot through ball. Rashford goes on to make it 2-1 and kickstart the comeback as United won the game 3-2.
Bruno lives for “moments”. Constantly trying to find the killer ball often leads to turning the ball over on several occasions in a game. Credit to him, not attempting this pass means United probably do not end up winning that game.
Moreover, Fernandes is never far away from scoring the goals himself. Although a big number of his goals last season were scored from the penalty spot, he has also come up with the goods from open play. His nine non-penalty top-flight goals last season (18 in total) have only ever been bettered twice by a United central midfielder in the Premier League era: Paul Scholes in 1995-96 (10) and 2002-03 (14). Fernandes himself has already equaled his record from last season as all his nine goals this season have come from open play, with Ronaldo taking over the penalty duties.
One of Bruno’s best goals in a United shirt was in last season’s fixture away to Newcastle United. Rashford drives with the ball on the left wing during a United counter-attack with the score tied at 1-1. The United forwards are outnumbered as the Newcastle defenders are marching back. Bruno makes a dummy run into the “red” space inside the box to lure the defense towards that area before shifting direction to support Rashford on the overlap into the “green” space.
As Rashford makes his way into the box, the five defenders are attracted to the ball in the “red” space. Bruno receives the cut-back from Rashford and is free in the box to score the winning goal.
Work rate out of possession
An underrated area of Bruno’s game is his pressing and tracking back to recover the ball in transitional defensive phases.
As shown below, Fernandes is the first line of pressing. The pass between the defenders is the trigger for him to go, with Ronaldo and Elanga covering. He presses higher up and forces Oblak to kick it long.
When the team loses possession, Fernandes tracks back aggressively to prevent the opponent from breaking.
Sancho is dispossessed and Griezmann advances with the ball for Atlético Madrid. The time is at 4:27 and Fernandes is the furthest United player forward.
Six seconds later, Bruno is nearly in his own box tracking back with more urgency than McTominay and Fred, the team’s defensive midfielders.
Below are Bruno’s defensive stats for this season compared to players in his position across Europe’s top five leagues. He ranks second in tackles, overall pressures and successful pressures. What’s notable is his 83 pressures in the defensive third.
Dip in form?
There is no debating that Fernandes has suffered from a dip in form this season and in recent months. Regardless of the goals and assists, it is clear that the Portuguese magnifico is not having the similar kind of effect on the team as in the previous seasons. But what can this be down to?
. Uncertainty and change
Change of managers mid-season and adapting to a new style under Ralph Rangnick is one of the factors. Rangnick took some time to settle on a balanced formation, shifting between 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1 and now 4-3-3 with Bruno in the advanced 8 position.
Fernandes is having fewer shots in the new role (1.9, down from 2.5) and creating fewer chances (2.4, down from 3.1) under Rangnick than he was under Solskjær.
In addition, in the 2020/21 season, Fernandes formed formidable partnerships with Cavani, Rashford and Greenwood. This term, Cavani has made only 15 appearances, most of them coming from the bench. Rashford is struggling to find form in the most difficult season of his career while Greenwood is no longer in the first-team picture due to 0ff-field troubles…
The arrival of fellow countryman Ronaldo in the summer has also shifted the spotlight away from Bruno. In the 2020/21 Premier League season, Fernandes ranked third for shots taken (121) behind Harry Kane (137) and Mohamed Salah (126) at a rate of 3.51 shots per 90 minutes. He has fallen to eighth in the same metric this season with just 65 shots, with his shots per 90 dropping to 2.53. Ronaldo leads the team in shots so far this term with 87.
Fernandes is one of those players that never seems to get a rest. Since joining the club, Bruno has racked up the most minutes of any United teammate (first table). In 2021, no player in world football made more senior appearances in all competitions than Fernandes. And we can see the trend is continuing this season. (second table)
. Poor team performances
In his first two seasons at the club, United were knocked out of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Europa League semi-finals and lost in the Europa League final to Villarreal last season. Bruno has endured some scrutiny for not being able to get his team over the line on the biggest stages.
This season, with the entire team performing poorly, already out of all cup competitions and sixth in the league, Fernandes’ form has obviously suffered. His high turnover of possession, sloppy passing, hasty decision-making and dribbling ability have all come to light.
Bruno is a high-risk high-reward player. He is constantly trying to make something happen and find the killer ball. As he is the focal point of the team, this results in the inability to maintain a rhythm and tempo. Losing the ball in dangerous positions creates chances for the opponents and puts the United defense under pressure. In last December’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle, Bruno gave the ball away 26 times, more than any player on the pitch. When the team is winning football matches, people can overlook these kinds of stats. But with the team suffering badly and the expectations at the club being so high, there is no hiding place.
This graphic shows a drop in xG from 0.41 to 0.23 from last season to this one. It also highlights the poor passing accuracy of 76.5% and 12.67 losses of the ball per 90 minutes, with 25.8% of the possession losses occurring in United’s half.
Below is an example of Bruno losing the ball in a dangerous area. United have just conceded a goal to Leeds and are now leading 2-1. The home side have the momentum, attacking United again seconds after scoring. Fernandes in the defensive third finds himself under pressure from Forshaw and James. He can either clear the ball or play a first-time pass to Lingard.
But Bruno takes a bad touch and tries to protect the ball. He is dispossessed by Forshaw and Leeds score the equalizer moments later.
Fernandes is most effective in the opponent’s half in the attacking third. Here Bruno collects the ball in his own half and plays it over the top to Lingard who is clearly marked by two Leeds players and the ball ends up being lost. Lindelöf and Pogba are both standing in much better positions in space. The United players are clearly in a transitional phase and not occupying their positions, a signal to slow the game down and restart. This season, Fernandes has attempted 328 long passes completing only 165 (50.3%) of those.
Moreover, Fernandes is sometimes impatient and tends to release the ball early rather than wait for the perfect moment. Here he wins the ball in midfield with Rashford in support. But before the latter can progress his run and beat the defender, Bruno plays the pass early and in a different direction to waste a potentially dangerous situation.
The stats below show the comparison between Fernandes and other players in his position across Europe’s top five leagues this season. The primary area of focus here is the pass completion %. Bruno’s 72.7% is the lowest out of the players highlighted, he has also attempted the second highest number of passes (1,451).
New manager upturn
With Bruno close to agreeing a new deal with the club, it is clear he is here to stay. A new manager appointment is imminent for United in the summer. As per media reports, the top two candidates for the job are Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino who both favor an attacking expansive style of football.
So should the new manager build his United team around Fernandes?
Despite his slight dip in form this term, Bruno has still managed to create the most chances from open play in the Premier League (first table). Also, he has the most touches (1,739) compared to players in the same position across Europe’s top five leagues (second table). This sheds light on Bruno’s all-around impact on the pitch, with his touches scattered in all areas.
Furthermore, his average of 2.9 chances created every 90 minutes in 2021-22 is actually up on his record for his first 18 months at Old Trafford (2.6) – so, while certain factions of the United faithful might be growing frustrated, it’s clear to see what he still brings to the table.
It is widely known that Pochettino tried to sign Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon towards the end of his stint at Spurs. Poch mostly set-up in a 4-2-3-1 system during his Tottenham days and got the best out of Dele Alli in the 10 position, scoring 18 goals and 7 assists in the 2016/17 season. Fernandes would likely have a similar role in the United team under the current Paris Saint Germain boss.
In Ten Hag’s case, his Ajax team is widely known for playing in a 4-3-3 system. His principles of play revolve around building up from the back, player movements to open up passing lanes, incise passing with purpose and high pressing in the defensive phase. Fernandes can fit into this style of football as he ticks many of the boxes, but he must adjust his game to thrive in a more tactical, detail-oriented system. If anyone has the capacity to create a more disciplined efficient Bruno, then look no further than the Dutch manager.
The forthcoming summer represents a defining period in United’s history, they must get the next managerial appointment right, sign the requested profile of player and get rid of the dead weight.
Fernandes will definitely be part of that, he has the United DNA. Regardless of which manager comes in, a United team with Fernandes in it is superior to one without him.
Fernandes has displayed the quality that makes him one of the best playmakers in Europe time and time again. Ultimately, football is also about more than just stats. Bruno plays football with a passion and anger that the current United team lacks. He is a big voice in the dressing room and a leader on the pitch. Now 27 and entering the peak years of his career, it is his responsibility to show his worth and be the focal point of the Old Trafford dressing room. Now is the time to start converting performances and stats into trophies.