As the new season approaches, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will certainly be hoping that Manchester United can bolster their midfield before their Premier League campaign starts.
Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera have both left the club, Fred has only shown glimpses and largely unimpressed in his debut season, Nemanja Matic is showing significant signs of decline, players like Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay have only been used as rotation players, and Paul Pogba could be leaving the club.
Needless to say, even if Solskjaer were to get more out of his existing midfield players and Pogba were to stay, the squad does need new midfield options.
Last season, it often seemed that the team was over-reliant on Paul Pogba to provide dynamism and creativity from midfield. While the Frenchman had many critics for his inconsistency, he was often the sole creative presence in the center and was easily marked out of games.
While Fred and Pereira could provide such qualities alongside Pogba, relying on them would be a substantial risk. As such, Manchester United’s heavy links to Portuguese ace Bruno Fernandes is hardly surprising.
But while the transfer may seem sensible on the surface, would it actually work? How would Fernandes fit in at Manchester United? Would he work with Paul Pogba?
By analyzing how Fernandes played for Sporting Lisbon, and how his skill set could work in Solskjaer’s system, we can arrive at a better conclusion as to whether Fernandes would be a smart acquisition for Manchester United.
Fernandes has been linked to a number of clubs in the transfer window, mainly because the 24-year-old Portuguese international has an impressive attacking profile. His passing ability is multi-faceted, which is well depicted in his stats. Fernandes averages 2.9 key passes per game, 0.7 of which are long passes, demonstrating that his range of passing is excellent. 0.6 of his key passes per game come from corners, which explains why he is Sporting’s primary corner taker.
Fernandes also averages 1.7 crosses per 90, reflecting that he is not just a danger from central areas. While his creative capacity is clear, what has made many people take notice of Fernandes is his goal-scoring output. He scored 20 times in the Liga NOS last season, making him Sporting’s leading goal scorer. He scored 11 league goals in the 17/18 season, showing a level of consistency in his scoring ability.
Bruno Fernandes: Had a direct hand in more goals (33 — 20 goals, 13 assists) than any other player in Liga NOS last season
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 17, 2019
Of the 3.4 shots he took per game last year, 2.2 of them were outside the box, with 28% of these shots hitting the target and 3 goals being scored from this area. His accuracy when taking shots outside the box is strong, making Fernandes a threat off free kicks and forcing defences to key in on him from further out.
In addition to his threat from outside the box, he is lethal when closer to goal. Fernandes scores more than 1 of every 3 shots he takes inside the penalty area, a hugely impressive rate for a midfielder. Needless to say, Fernandes is an exceptional attacking presence who combines a wide array of creative skills with a potent goal-scoring threat.
Unlike playmakers of the past, Fernandes is a willing defensive contributor. He is not physically imposing, and is not particularly adept at interceptions and winning duels. However, he is highly energetic and willing to harrow and pressure opposition players when without the ball. According to Statsbomb data, Fernandes averages 3.34 pressure regains (times a player wins the ball back within five seconds of pressuring an opponent) and 19.78 pressures (times a player pressures an opposition player per 90 minutes) per game. This work-rate has meant that while not an excellent defender, Fernandes is still an asset without the ball and is not a defensive liability.
For Sporting Lisbon, Fernandes was most commonly deployed as one of three midfielders in a 4-3-3 that relied on quick counter attacks, aggressive defending, and lots of crosses. He also played in the wide attacking roles in a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, where his crossing and dribbling were put to greater use.
In his normal central midfield role, Fernandes has a great degree of license to roam the pitch. When he drops back, he has the ability to move the ball quickly while under pressure, and is acutely aware of the position of his teammates and the opposition.
When he receives the ball in space, Fernandes can switch the line of attack, feed the ball into space for attackers to run onto, or drive with the ball at his feet to either get close enough to shoot or play intricate through balls closer to the opposition box.
In the final third, Fernandes will either drift wide to cross or find pockets of space in between the lines through intelligent off-ball movement, disrupting the opposition defensive structure and creating shooting opportunities or space for other players to run into. Ultimately, Fernandes has thrived as his team’s primary creative fulcrum, and has shown consistent attacking quality through various stages of Sporting’s play.
United should end up getting Fernandeshttps://t.co/lCG48UmL8a
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) July 15, 2019
Should Fernandes join the Red Devils, he would be familiar with Solskjaer’s preferred set-up: the 4-3-3. He would presumably play on the right-hand side of the three with Pogba on the left and a defensively minded midfielder in the middle, either a new signing or Nemanja Matic.
In a general sense, he would relieve Pogba of some of his creative duties and allow United to be less reliant on the left-hand side of their attack. There are a few specific ways in which Fernandes would fit very well into this set up.
Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are the most commonly used right-wingers and frequently drift infield. This inward movement creates space in wide areas that, with a player as adept at crossing as Fernandes, could be well used. Particularly with Pogba making runs into the box from the left, United could create a number of chances from Fernandes crossing from the right and Pogba’s aerial threat from the left.
Additionally, United would often build their attacks from the left. With Victor Lindelof as the club’s only true ball-playing center back, Luke Shaw as their most consistent fullback, Anthony Martial’s trickery and pace, and of course Paul Pogba, United have a left hand side conducive to attacking prowess.
A common maneuver Solskjaer tried to employ was to build attacks on the left and quickly switch to the right, with either Marcus Rashford or Jesse Lingard receiving the pass. While both players can finish chances and exploit space well, their final ball can sometimes disappoint. If Fernandes was added, these switch passes would be arriving to a player with better playmaking qualities, potentially making these plays more fruitful for United.
Ultimately, Fernandes could provide United with a second exceptional playmaker who could help Solskjaer get the best out of Paul Pogba. He would be able to pull the strings from deeper when Pogba pushes forward, or be an advanced attacking threat when the Frenchman drops off.
Teams would have to be more cautious swarming the £89 million man, knowing that Fernandes would be left in space. With another creative presence, United could alleviate their problems with progressing the ball forwards, unlocking compact defenses, and dealing with Pogba’s periodic inconsistency.
There are, however, caveats to the deal. For one, there would likely be a significant adjustment period given the differences between the Portuguese and English leagues. While the Portuguese league does have several teams that play with deep, compact defensive blocks, the pace of play is markedly different.
In regards to United specifically, their track record with midfield signings has been poor of late. Even a player who did reasonably well such as Ander Herrera was radically transformed and in some ways reduced during his time in Manchester. He arrived at the club as a dynamic number eight, and even played as an enganche for Marcelo Bielsa.
Herrera possessed several creative qualities in combination with an impressive work rate. Yet at United, Herrera was essentially used as a box to box midfielder with minimal attacking license. His main task was to harrow opposition players and run tirelessly to plug defensive gaps, which in time seemed to reduce his natural tendency to attack. Aside from Herrera, there are countless examples of midfielders who did well for their respective clubs and failed to perform at United.
Solskjaer must be wary to not do the same with Fernandes. Primarily, United will have to seriously consider who their defensive midfielder should be if Fernandes were to play alongside Pogba in a midfield three.
Nemanja Matic is an option, but his lack of mobility would hinder his capacity to cover the space left behind by Fernandes and Pogba. Scott McTominay has more energy and dynamism that Matic, but trying him in the role would be a risk that Solskjaer would have to consider carefully.
The club have been linked with potential candidates, with Sean Longstaff, Thomas Partey, and Idrissa Gueuye among them. Longstaff would be a risk given his lack of experience, Partey is unlikely to be sold in the aftermath of Rodri’s departure from Atletico Madrid. Gueye, despite being 29, has consistently been one of the best performing defensive midfielders in the Premier League and possesses the necessary attributes to anchor a midfield with players such as Pogba and Fernandes. Whether United sign him or someone else, a competent number six is vital to the club’s success should Fernandes sign.
In sum, there is much to be positive about Bruno Fernandes potentially signing with Manchester United. With the correct coaching and players around him, Fernandes could be one of the key pieces to return Manchester United back to the top echelons of English and European football.