Richard Jolly looks at Bruno Fernandes' performances

Bruno Fernandes: Can Manchester United star do it in the big games?


Tottenham, Chelsea, Sevilla, Tottenham, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig. As Bruno Fernandes approaches the first anniversary of his move to Manchester United, a transformative figure can point to six major matches when he found the net.

But there is a recurring theme. Each goal came from 12 yards.

Fernandes has become United’s penalty king and United, as Jurgen Klopp has noted, win a famously high number of penalties.

Admittedly, given Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba’s misses from the spot before the Portuguese’s arrival, signing someone with a 93% conversion rate helps; the penalty he scored at Leicester on the final day of last season to book Champions League football probably ranks as the most important goal of United’s campaign.

But judge by non-penalty goals and a question can be asked; is a huge figure at Old Trafford actually a big-game player?

Five of Bruno Fernandes' 11 Premier League goals this season have been penalties

Since joining United, he has played 13 games against England’s supposed 'Big Six', Sevilla, Leipzig and PSG without finding the net in open play.

He only has two assists in those matches and one was from a a corner; Harry Maguire headed in against Chelsea last season. The other was when he released Rashford to run clear and score in the 5-0 rout of Leipzig.

Fernandes the flat-track bully? It is a compelling narrative, the tale of a player with 21 goals against the rest and none in open play against the best, but it isn’t the whole story. For starters, the 'Big Six' and the top six have become different things.

Fernandes may have got an accidental assist at Leicester on Boxing Day, but he followed it up with a goal. He scored twice and created Edinson Cavani’s strike in the 3-1 win at Everton in November. Those may yet prove to be goals against Champions League qualifiers.

There are other factors to consider, too. United have only had the majority of possession in four of those 13 defining games. Their share of the ball dropped as low as 27% in victory against Manchester City last season and 34% in Sunday’s stalemate at Anfield.

And yet a flair player is asked to do just as much, with less of the ball.

His number of touches can drop: he had 50 in 88 minutes against Liverpool, his lowest rate per minute in a United game this season. Last year’s equivalent was 52 in 89 against Chelsea.

In contrast, his four highest number of touches this season came against Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Istanbul Basaksehir and West Brom.

Bruno Fernandes returned his lowest pass completion of the Premier League season in the draw with Liverpool

Fernandes’ pass completion rate is rarely high – 76% since arriving in the Premier League – because of his willingness to risk losing the ball in a bid to make things happen.

It often dips further against the elite - 56.8% versus Liverpool for instance - but most tellingly, 55.6 as a substitute in the 5-0 thrashing of Leipzig.

Perhaps he is not being flattered by his team-mates’ finishing. His expected assists (xA) in some of these games - 0.36 at Tottenham last season, 0.4 versus Sevilla in the Europa League semi-final, 0.5 in the home defeat to PSG – shows chances are being made and missed.

Contrastingly, Fernandes is being provided with too few opportunities.

Exclude penalties and he has only had one clear-cut chance in Premier League meetings with the Big Six - a shot which Alisson saved at the weekend that registered an expected goals (xG) of 0.49.

Maybe United are the issue, rather than their Portuguese midfielder, even if he is part of the way their identity has shifted. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were the scourge of the favourites but a team who struggled to see off lesser sides.

Now there has been a role reversal: Fernandes has helped them win the winnable games. Since their opening defeat to Palace, United have only dropped points against Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Leicester and Liverpool.

Bruno Fernandes' celebrates his goal against PSG which, as his become customary against top sides, came from the spot

In contrast, at this stage last season, they had lost points to Wolves, Palace, Southampton, West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Everton, Watford and Burnley - all before their talisman's arrival. Efficiency against underdogs has taken United top.

Perhaps they are victims of their own success in the marquee matches. While Solskjaer invariably plays Fred, leaving Fernandes with much of the creative burden, and has veered between 3-4-1-2, a midfield diamond and 4-2-3-1, the Portuguese’s primacy as a No. 10 is the common denominator.

But opponents are being configured to prevent United from counter-attacking, and their output has gone down accordingly.

While they have scored 10 goals in four games against PSG and Leipzig, they have a solitary goal in six against England’s Big Six - Fernandes’ penalty against Tottenham. Three of those games have ended 0-0, three in defeat.

Fernandes is often compared with Eric Cantona, another who had a catalytic impact. Sunday’s FA Cup tie illustrates a difference.

Cantona got a winner in the final against Liverpool in 1996. Fernandes has achieved much in his brief United career, but is still searching for such a defining moment.


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