Perhaps he felt that, after 90 minutes in torrential rain, he could scarcely get any more drenched but, long after the final whistle, Bruno Fernandes was still conducting post-match interviews on the Elland Road pitch on Sunday. One of the last Leeds fans to leave the ground took the opportunity to yell a bit more abuse in his direction. Perhaps the Portuguese didn’t hear it. Perhaps he didn’t care. His verdict on a hostile occasion? “Unbelievable, I really enjoyed it. It was a great atmosphere.”
Maybe Fernandes was simply tempted to adapt an old chant. Could he play Leeds every week? He has six goals and two assists in four games against them so that may have been a factor. But arguably this was part of a personal renaissance. When he headed in Jadon Sancho’s cross on the stroke of half-time, it meant he had scored in consecutive matches. There was a time when that felt the norm, but he had not done that for a year. There was something symbolic, too, about the way he was the man who kept on running, nicking the ball off Pascal Struijk to tee up Anthony Elanga’s late fourth goal just as, five days earlier, he had sprinted clear from his own half to score United’s 97th-minute clincher against Brighton.
After only three goals in 25 games, he has two in two. Arguably, his revival dates back a little further. Starting with January’s brace against Aston Villa, he has four goals and four assists in eight outings. It is a measure of his productivity that, despite a fallow autumn, only Mohamed Salah and Jarrod Bowen have been directly involved in more Premier League goals, while he faces Atletico Madrid with five Champions League assists already to his name.
And yet it was emblematic of how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s regime fell apart that Fernandes, surely a shoo-in for the unofficial title of the best player of the Norwegian’s reign, failed to score in his final 13 games, just as there was when Michael Carrick dropped him for his first match in caretaker charge. Fernandes was one of those who would supposedly benefit from Cristiano Ronaldo’s return and then didn’t, losing his status as penalty taker to his fellow Portuguese after his skied spot kick against Aston Villa.
If the Brighton match may have signified a change - compatriots set each other up for a golden chance during a second-half period when they looked rampant – a positional shift may have helped Bruno be Bruno again.
Rangnick switched to 4-2-3-1 midway through the first half against Albion. It was a reaction to Brighton’s dominance, rather than prioritising Fernandes, but it meant he was reinstalled as the No. 10 and he flourished. He has generally played, and played well, for the German of late as a No. 8, a role Solskjaer rarely afforded him. Yet United’s 4-3-3 feels tweaked to become something of a hybrid shape. While Fred raided forward to score at Elland Road, Fernandes is more naturally attacking. He can be more advanced than Paul Pogba, the other No. 8. A slightly lopsided 4-3-3 works in his favour and if it means an adjustment – he has to make some of his surges forward from a deeper starting position – the last few matches suggest he has the energy to still get into scoring positions. He is shooting more than he was in his barren autumn.
He has benefited from Rangnick abandoning his beloved shape. The positions of the wide No.10s in the German’s 4-2-2-2 seem specialist roles, part actual No.10, part winger, part inside-forward, part full-back protector. Fernandes looked miscast. He appears happier in a spot where he never has to be near the touchline; his centrality to the Solskjaer project was not merely figurative.
He was a talismanic presence. As United enter a potentially decisive spell – their next six games include Atletico Madrid twice, a Manchester derby and meetings with Tottenham and Liverpool – they could do with him assuming that status in major matches again. United’s season has been littered with false dawns and perhaps it was inevitable that, sooner or later, a footballer of Fernandes’ calibre in a team of their talent would score in two games in a row. And yet if a surfeit of nostalgia undermined United earlier in the season, now they can take encouragement from a glimpse of the past. Perhaps the old Bruno is back.
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