It seems fitting to discuss Bruno Fernandes before tonight’s game. The Portuguese midfielder turns 28 years old today in what is his fourth season playing for Manchester United.
Often erratic but consistently compelling, Fernandes plays his game in the grey area between wasteful and artful.
Yes: some fans become frustrated by his emotional – and sometimes nonsensical ̶ style of play. A perfect example of this would be against Leicester City. Under the cosh in the second half and holding on to a narrow 1-0 score line, Fernandes decided to try to lob Danny Ward from 50 yards out rather than to be sensible; keep the ball; manage the game; or build an attack.
But his qualities and results are undeniable.
Noted for his immediate impact upon signing for United in January 2019 after Ole Gunnar Solskjær personally scouted the midfielder in Lisbon, Fernandes’ statistics were incomparable.
15 direct goal involvements in 14 Premier League games are undoubtedly impressive – but it was also his impact on other players. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were two of the best attackers in the League following his arrival.
This ability to not only influence games with crucial goals and assists but also influence teammates to an incredibly fruitful degree caused many to compare Fernandes’ arrival to that of Eric Cantona’s.
In his next season at United, Fernandes scored 18 League goals – coincidentally the same tally which Cantona netted in his second season at Old Trafford.
His proficiency in altering and influencing games from an attacking midfield/second striker position also fits the Cantona profile.
Last season, however, showed the Portuguese’s fallibilities.
Instead of inspiring his team during a difficult period and urging positive performances, Fernandes often acted petulant and overly reactive.
Whilst many were calling for him to be awarded the captain’s armband and replace Harry Maguire as the designated leader, Fernandes reacted by displaying reasons why he should not.
Increasingly complaining to referees, Fernandes’ form dipped coinciding with the team’s overall disastrous performances under Ralf Rangnick. United’s “magnifico” was virtually incapable of clutching games by the scruff of the neck and altering the declining results (in a Cantona-like manner, you could say).
And even so, he still managed to contribute 14 assists across all competitions. It is the high expectations and overall performances which damaged his reputation.
What is interesting, nonetheless, is Cantona’s lack of on-field presence in his third season following the infamous kung-fu kick at a fan (who was shouting hateful and distasteful insults about the Frenchman’s family). United were unable to pip Arsenal to the title at the end of that season.
After his return from suspension, Cantona guided United to the 1995/96 Premier League title – at the same age which Fernandes has turned today.
Of course, that is not to suggest that United will go on to win the title this year. It is simply an example of one former maverick’s ability to rejuvenate himself and his team and recapture world-class form and leadership. Indeed, at 28 years old Cantona had already led United to two league titles.
With Erik ten Hag revealing that he has already been consulting Sir Alex Ferguson, it may be of interest for the Dutchman to ask a fellow disciplinarian manager for advice on dealing with an unpredictable but potentially pivotal character and talisman.
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