It was the stoppage-time rabona that underlined just how much Bruno Fernandes is enjoying himself right now. There were no goals or assists for him in Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest but his status as the team’s creative force is clear.
His hooked pass to Marcus Rashford in the build up to the second goal highlighted his ability to turn defence into attack. In the second half, his rare vision enabled him to play the clever passes that might easily have resulted in goals for both Antony and Anthony Martial.
With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, the amateur psychologists will have their say. “Bruno Fernandes has to be the main man and you can feel it now Ronaldo is not here anymore and you can feel that he is the boss again,” said former United favourite Patrice Evra.
Fernandes hardly struggled during Ronaldo’s time at Old Trafford but that sense of a player inhibited by the superstar’s arrival was there in the stats. Maybe that dip was inevitable given how astonishing those numbers were in his first 18 months at the club.
It is worth a reminder. From the time of his Premier League debut in February 2020 to the signing of Ronaldo in September 2021, Fernandes scored 29 goals in the competition. That was one shy of Harry Kane and only two fewer than top scorer Mohamed Salah.
Consider the fact that Fernandes was clear of Kevin De Bruyne as the top provider of assists in the Premier League during this period and it is reasonable to conclude that he was the outstanding player in the country. Nobody was involved in as many goals as Fernandes.
Nobody had a bigger impact on their club either. Manchester United were closer to the bottom half of the Premier League than the top four when he joined them midseason. Over the next year and a half, only Manchester City picked up more points than United.
“He is the leader in that team, the leader by example,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “Every time the team are on the ball, he wants the ball. Every time he gets the ball, he wants to play a pass that matters. He has transformed, I would say, the whole club.”
Fernandes’ hat-trick against Leeds on the opening day of last season took his total to 29 goals in 52 Premier League appearances. But Ronaldo signed just a fortnight later and, in the 31 Premier League games that he started, Fernandes scored only five times.
Much of the explanation for that diminished goal return has focused on the psychological – this need to be the boss to which Evra refers. It is not without substance. Witness the pressure penalty against Aston Villa last season, skied with Ronaldo hovering behind him.
But Ronaldo’s impact on Fernandes’ form was tactical as well as mental. Asked to explain those goals against Leeds, his description of the opener, an off-the-ball run through the middle, felt revealing. “The space was so big because of the movement,” he said.
That was a product of others running to the flanks to open up the space for him to move into. Ronaldo rarely did that. He was a more static presence looking for service from those wide areas. It was not the ideal foil for Fernandes, a playmaker in need of runners.
Manchester United supporters will have seen that play out in microcosm at the World Cup as Portugal looked at their most fluid when Goncalo Ramos so impressed against Switzerland. When there is movement ahead of him, Fernandes will find the pass.
It is his superpower. Some even accuse him of looking for it too much. He has lost possession more than anyone else at United this season – almost 900 times more than anyone else since joining the club. His ambition with the ball comes at a price.
Fernandes himself has articulated his reasoning on this. He knows that if he puts Rashford clean through just once it is worth it. “I have told Marcus. I do not care if I miss 10 passes, focus on receiving the right pass, let the blame be on me.” Rashford knows it too.
“We have some excellent passers of the ball and as long as we make three, four, five runs then we are going to get the ball,” said the forward. “We might not get it the first time but it is really important to keep going when Bruno and Chris [Eriksen] are on the ball.”
With Rashford and others making those runs on demand, Fernandes’ numbers are up once more. Only the great Manchester City playmaker De Bruyne has attempted more through balls per 90 minutes than the Portuguese in the Premier League this season.
Whether it is psychological and he feels more emboldened to try those passes, or it is tactical and he is simply able to attempt them now that there are players ahead of him making those movements, the upshot is that Fernandes is back in tune with the team.
That pass to Rashford against Forest was an example of that. “I know Rashy, he loves to go into the spaces quick, so for me it makes it easy, I just have to hit the grass, hit the space.” There are few better at doing that. The team is set up for his strengths again.
There has been only one assist so far this season but Fernandes ranks third for expected assists. They will soon flow. “Bruno is playing really good this season. He can produce more goals and assists but I think he is often in the line of the goal,” said Erik ten Hag.
“He is playing a massive role in a lot of moments of football for us. In building up attacks, creativity, movement, but also in transitions, in both sides, in the defensive transitions he is magnificent and doing a really good job so I am really happy with his performances.”
The statistics show that Fernandes is making more tackles, more interceptions and winning possession of the ball in the final third more often than ever before under Ten Hag. He has responded to the demands, adjusting his game in a way that Ronaldo could not.
And his coach has rewarded him by readjusting his team to get the best from Fernandes. No wonder he is enjoying himself again.
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