There is a statue outside Old Trafford, commemorating the achievements of entertainers who attained greatness under Sir Matt Busby. George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law were Manchester United’s holy trinity. Half a century on, it feels safe to say that no sculptures are planned of 2019/20’s unholy trinity.
There are reasons why Bruno Fernandes has acquired popularity so quickly at Old Trafford. There was the insouciantly laidback penalty against Watford and the parts he played in United’s other two goals. There was the corner he took for Harry Maguire’s goal at Chelsea, a particular boon for a team who only had four previous set-piece goals, penalties apart, and required a specialist from dead-ball situations. The way that, even in nine minutes against Bruges, he offered more purpose and hints of potency than most of the starters. There is the record of 48 goals in his last 18 months and Sporting Lisbon and the reality that United, at a low ebb, have been desperate to latch on to a possible saviour.
But those reasons are because of who he is and who he isn’t. He is Bruno Fernandes. He isn’t Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira or Juan Mata. Thus far, he exists as an indictment of them.
Exclude Lingard, who has neither scored nor provided a top-flight goal since 2018 and who has fewer assists than Alisson and Aaron Ramsdale this season, and their statistics are similar in one respect: Pereira has one goal and three assists in the Premier League, Fernandes one and two, Mata none and two. The difference is that the Portuguese only arrived in January. He has played 270 minutes in the division, as against Mata’s 715, Lingard’s 891 and Pereira’s 1,454. It is a small sample size, but Fernandes has played a pivotal part in a goal every 90 minutes; so has Kevin de Bruyne, though he has sustained that excellence over rather longer.
It is too soon to suggest he is of the Belgian’s standard. Yet Fernandes’ early impact suggests he ranks as one of the season’s biggest upgrades. A position of weakness has been transformed into one of strength; given United’s wealth, £47 million may be money well spent to do that.
And the attacking midfield roles had become United’s weakest position. They had an emptiness where they needed invention, impotence where they required productivity. Lingard, Mata and Pereira have been versatile enough to also occupy deeper and wider roles, but they have been United’s imperfect 10s, players who have operated in positions where some involvement in goals is a prerequisite.
And most of United’s failings can be traced back to that hole at the heart of the side. The over-reliance on Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, which was perhaps a reason why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer overplayed the Englishman until he got injured? The over-reliance on Paul Pogba, whose contribution of 13 league goals, albeit augmented by penalties, and nine assists last season has not been replaced during a campaign when he has been sidelined?
The struggles to beat the lesser sides and win games when United have the majority of possession and thus fewer opportunities to counter-attack at pace, in the way they have excelled against the elite? The lack of a playmaker? The barren runs and low-scoring matches in a season when United have drawn a blank in 11 games and mustered a solitary goal in a further 14? All reflect the failings of Mata, Lingard and Pereira. In first Scott McTominay and then Fred, solutions emerged in the defensive midfield roles, but rather fewer in the attacking midfield area until Fernandes’ arrival.
United were underpowered, left with only three regular scorers, one of whom is a teenager and another, whether Martial or Rashford, has been sidelined. Liverpool have proved it is possible to prosper without anyone capable of getting 10 goals from midfield but they are the exception, not the rule. Mata once brought that promise. So did Lingard. Pereira probably never will. But their collective failure rendered Fernandes more important before he had kicked a ball in United’s colours and more welcome when he did.
They were substandard and, when Lingard and Pereira were omitted from the 18 as Fernandes flourished against Watford, surplus to requirements, shown up by the newcomer and turfed out of the team.
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