Bruno Fernandes has shone for Manchester United since his £68m move from Sporting Lisbon in January and will hope to pick up where he left off when the action resumes
Friday 12 June 2020 10:33, UK
Manchester United's 2-0 loss at home to Burnley in January felt like a nadir under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Old Trafford was half-empty by the time the final whistle sounded, but there were still audible boos from around the stands as the players trudged towards the tunnel.
The fans were entitled to show their frustration. It had been another listless performance in a season which seemed in danger of petering out entirely. But the mood could hardly be more different now.
In the space of a few weeks before football's postponement, Manchester United reinvigorated their top-four challenge in the Premier League, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and all but confirmed their place in the last eight of the Europa League. Their 11-game unbeaten run is their longest since the start of Solskjaer's tenure.
It would not have happened without Bruno Fernandes. The 25-year-old has had a transformative impact since his £68m arrival from Sporting Lisbon on the penultimate day of the transfer window, living up to sky-high expectations and then some. In nine appearances in all competitions so far, there have been three goals, five assists and a lot more besides.
"We feel we've added some X-factor and quality with Bruno," said Solskjaer in February. "He gives us that little bit of a different flavour. He's a player who likes to play penetrative passes, forward passes. He likes to take risks, which is what a Manchester United player should do."
What a Manchester United player should do, perhaps, but certainly not what they had been doing previously.
The lack of creativity and imagination in Solskjaer's midfield had been heightened in the absence of the injured Paul Pogba, but Fernandes changed it from the moment he came into the team.
On his debut, in an otherwise forgettable 0-0 draw at home to Wolves, he could be seen finding Juan Mata between the lines with the kind of passes others might struggle to see let alone execute.
It was a glimpse of what was to come. As well as adding goals and assists since his Premier League bow, Fernandes ranks top among Manchester United players for shots, chances created and passes into the final third.
Even more significant, however, is that he has produced more than three times as many passes into the opposition box as any of his team-mates. In the Premier League as a whole, in fact, his total of 48 is second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold since the start of February.
Fernandes has provided a link between United's midfield and attack, but it's his ability to produce those killer passes which truly set him apart.
He has unpicked defences from open play, as he did for Anthony Martial's goal in the 3-0 win over Watford, and provided opportunities from set pieces, such as Harry Maguire's opener in the 2-0 victory at Chelsea.
Suddenly, Manchester United look like a formidable attacking force again. In the eight games Fernandes has started, they have scored 21 times. A team which was previously averaging 1.6 goals per game is now averaging 2.6. Odion Ighalo has helped too, of course, but what's crucial is that there is now someone providing the kind of service the side was crying out for.
Fernandes' quality was not in doubt, of course. This is a player who scored 63 goals and provided 52 assists in 137 games for Sporting Lisbon.
But United's recent history is proof that ability alone is not always enough. It is thanks to his temperament as well as his talent that Fernandes is succeeding where Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria and others have failed.
"We often talk about players taking time to settle at a club - it's not taken him long has it?" said Roy Keane on Sky Sports in April. "He seems a very good personality. It's obviously a huge move for him, but he seems to be enjoying it. He's got a little bit of arrogance about him."
That arrogance can be seen in his swaggering performances, and it was also evident in the way he shushed Pep Guardiola during the 2-0 win over City in the Manchester derby. "I am so respectful of Pep, what he's won and what he did for football, but at that moment, he didn't respect me and he didn't deserve my respect," he told Sky Sports afterwards.
That exchange went down predictably well with supporters, who are already enamoured by him, and his team-mates have been just as impressed. "He has an aura about him," said Harry Maguire recently. Luke Shaw has lauded his impact "inside the dressing room" as well as on the pitch. "He is a different player," added David de Gea.
Fernandes has earned plaudits for his work-rate both on matchdays and on the training pitch, embracing the physicality of the Premier League and contributing defensively as well as offensively. It's with the ball at his feet, however, that his leadership qualities are most apparent. His assuredness in possession transmits to those around him.
"He's brought leadership, but I think he's brought it in a different way," added Keane. "People talk about leadership in terms of making tackles, but he's just given everyone a lift, and that comes down to his quality."
Martial has certainly looked emboldened, putting a poor run of form behind him to score four goals in his last six appearances, three of which have been set up by Fernandes. In midfield, Fred has grown in stature and so too has Nemanja Matic. At right-back, meanwhile, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is improving the attacking side of his game having reportedly received one-on-one guidance from the new arrival.
It is as a team, though, that Manchester United have benefited most. The boos that rang out at Old Trafford against Burnley are a distant memory now. When football returns, and with Bruno Fernandes leading the way, United will fancy their chances of finishing the campaign on a high.
The Premier League 2019/20 season will provisionally restart on Wednesday, June 17 and Sky, the UK's leading football broadcaster, will make 25 games available 'free to air' - including Everton vs Liverpool on the first full weekend back - for everyone in the UK to enjoy.
Sky Sports will show 64 live Premier League games when the season resumes. In addition to the 39 matches already scheduled to be broadcast exclusively live on Sky Sports before the coronavirus interruption, 25 more matches will be available on both Sky Sports Premier League and Sky's free-to-air Pick channel, allowing the whole nation to be part of the return of live sport.
To celebrate the return of the Premier League, Sky Sports will also launch a host of innovative new features and updates to give fans an even more immersive experience and share the moments live with family and friends on virtual platforms.