Bruno Fernandes delivered an effective performance in his first official game as Manchester United captain. Ten Hag’s men beat Premier League rivals, Arsenal, twice; firstly, in ninety minutes; and secondly, on penalties. A full breakdown of the match is provided here.
Fernandes was the highest rated player on the pitch in the first half, for either team. Kai Havertz, a figure of anonymity in the number ten role, provided a stark contrast to the decisive and diligent United man operating in the same position.
While his goal was crucial, albeit a tad fortunate, Fernandes also fulfilled his typical modus operandi as creative machine, with two key passes and one big chance created. If Antony possessed more composure Fernandes would have added an assist to his goal.
Fernandes’ work rate is similarly presupposed at this point, offering his usual combination of industriousness and intensity without the ball.
There was also a moment where Fernandes turned peacekeeper, pulling Ten Hag away from his complaints to the fourth official. It represented something of a role reversal for the two men but it underscores the respect they hold for each other, as Ten Hag immediately ceased his protestations upon Fernandes speaking to him. The manager’s captain and the captain’s manager working in tandem; a powerful combination.
There were moments of poor quality and wastefulness in possession, as to be expected in a pre-season friendly, yet they speak to the type of footballer Fernandes is; an all-or-nothing player who constantly takes risks. And United’s success next season will revolve around these risks paying off.
Ten Hag’s side were defensively strong last year (ignoring a couple of freak results which should be forgotten by any means possible). United conceded the same number of goals as Arsenal and possessed the 3rd best defensive record in the league, with David De Gea winning the Golden Glove award.
United’s struggles were in the other direction.
Ten Hag has recognised the offensive issues as his side finished 7th in the goals tally, choosing to prioritise the acquisition of a new striker this summer. Rasmus Højlund is reportedly the number one target as talks continue with Atalanta. Ten Hag describes the forward as the “perfect player” for him.
Højlund will not be enough to remedy this impotent attack alone however.
Marcus Rashford transcended to a different level last season, and the best ten Hag could reasonably hope for is a repeat. Old Trafford’s other attackers remain inconsistent at best. The onus for increased productivity will primarily fall, therefore, upon the shoulders of Fernandes.
Operating behind a striker such as Højlund will produce three effects for the Portuguese midfielder;
1. Fernandes will have a striker with the pace and power to consistently capitalise upon his creativity.
2. Fernandes will have a striker whose pace and power occupies the opposition’s defenders to such an extent he is granted much more freedom, much closer to the goal.
3. Fernandes will have a striker who is 20 years-old and not scored more than nine goals in a major league before.
This combination will both simultaneously put pressure on Fernandes to produce while offering him the platform to do so. Højlund’s inclusion will enable Fernandes to score and assist more freely, while requiring Fernandes to score and assist more freely. It represents something of a footballing paradox.
However, as demonstrated in the first forty-five minutes of football this evening, Fernandes is more than capable of both scoring a goal and providing one, without operating at his best. This ability to contribute will be integral to United’s success next season, just as it was tonight.