It was the stoppage time rabona who highlighted how much fun Bruno Fernandes is having at the moment. 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 hooking pass to Marcus Rashford in the build-up to the second goal highlighted his ability to turn defense into attack. In the second half, his rare vision allowed him to play the smart passes that could easily have resulted in goals for Antony and Anthony Martial.
Cristiano Ronaldo gone, amateur psychologists will have their say. “Bruno Fernandes has to be the main man and you can feel that now that Ronaldo is gone and you can feel that he’s the boss again,” said former United favorite Patrice Evra.
Fernandes hardly struggled during Ronaldo’s time at Old Trafford, but that feeling of a player inhibited by the superstar’s arrival was there in the stats. Perhaps this drop was inevitable given how staggering those numbers were in his first 18 months at the club.
It is worth a reminder. From his Premier League debut in February 2020 until signing Ronaldo in September 2021, Fernandes has scored 29 goals in the competition. It was one less than Harry Kane and only two less than top scorer Mohamed Salah.
Consider the fact that Fernandes fell short of Kevin De Bruyne as the Premier League’s top assist provider during this period and it’s reasonable to conclude that he was the standout player in the country. No one has been involved in as many goals as Fernandes.
Nor has anyone had a greater impact on his club. Manchester United were closer to the bottom half of the Premier League than the top four when he joined them mid-season. Over the next year and a half, only Manchester City collected more points than United.
“He’s the leader of this team, the leader for example,” said Gary Neville sky sports. “Every time the team is on the ball, he wants the ball. Every time he gets the ball back, he wants to play a pass that counts. He has transformed, I would say, the whole club.”
Fernandes’ hat-trick against Leeds on the opening matchday of last season took his tally to 29 goals in 52 Premier League appearances. But Ronaldo signed a fortnight later and, in the 31 Premier League games he started, Fernandes scored just five times.
Much of the explanation for this diminished goal return has focused on the psychological – this need to be the boss that Evra refers to. 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 has been both tactical and mental. Asked to explain those goals against Leeds, his description of the opener, a run off the ball through the middle, proved revealing. “The space was so big because of the movement,” he said.
It was the product of other people running to the flanks to open up space for him to move into. Ronaldo rarely did that. It was a more static presence seeking services in these large areas. It was not the ideal foil for Fernandes, playmaker in need of runners.
Manchester United fans will have seen this play out in microcosm at the World Cup as Portugal watched their most fluid when Goncalo Ramos was so impressed against Switzerland. When there is movement in front of him, Fernandes will find the pass.
It’s his super power. Some even accuse him of looking for it too much. He’s lost the ball more than anyone at United this season – almost 900 times more than anyone since joining the club. His ambition with the ball comes at a price.
Fernandes himself articulated his reasoning on this. He knows if he cleans up Rashford once, it’s worth it. “I told Marcus. I don’t care if I miss 10 passes, focus on receiving the right pass, blame it on me.” Rashford knows it too.
“We have excellent passers from the ball and as long as we make three, four, five points we will win the ball,” said the striker. “We might not get it the first time, but it’s really important to keep going when Bruno and Chris [Eriksen] are on the ball.”
With Rashford and others doing these errands on demand, Fernandes’ numbers are on the rise again. Only Manchester City great playmaker De Bruyne has attempted more balls per 90 minutes than the Portuguese in the Premier League this season.
Whether it’s psychological and he feels more emboldened to try those passes, or whether it’s tactical and he’s just able to attempt them now that there are players in front of him making those moves, the result 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 likes to go fast in spaces, so for me it’s easy, I just have to touch the grass, touch the space.” There are few better ones to do it. The team is again set up for its strengths.
There has only been one assist so far this season but Fernandes ranks third for expected assist. They will sink soon. “Bruno is playing really well this season. He can produce more goals and assists but I think he is often in the goal line,” said Erik ten Hag.
“He plays a huge role in a lot of footballing moments for us. In attacking, creative, movement building, but also in transitions, on both sides, in defensive transitions, he’s magnificent and does a very good job so I’m really happy with his performance.”
Stats show Fernandes making more tackles, more interceptions and taking possession in the final third more often than ever under Ten Hag. He responded to requests, adjusting his game in ways Ronaldo couldn’t.
And his manager rewarded him by readjusting his squad to get the best out of Fernandes. No wonder he’s having fun again.