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EPL - The Fernandes Factor

Why Manchester United will finish top four and secure Champions League football for next season... as the Premier League prepares for tomorrow’s resumption...

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League
The inspiration, the organizer and the goalscorer... Bruno Fernandes was all three in United’s last premier League match, a 2-0 defeat of bitter rivals, Manchester City...
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Sometimes when a new player joins your club, you ‘just know’ after a couple of games.

The impact can be immediate. Lukaku never felt right, Schneiderlin either, Fellaini was never a Manchester United player; then there was Depay, Mikhitaryan and Sanchez. My word, Sanchez - it was like he’d just decided to stop playing football altogether...

But sometimes a player comes along where it clicks right from the off. Think Cantona, van Nistelrooy, Rooney and of course Cristiano Ronaldo.

Now a fellow-countryman of Ronaldo’s is also helping himself to a place on the United newcomer ‘healthy list’. The Bruno Fernandes transfer saga went on and on. United fans, despondent at lack-lustre displays by their team, were forlornly pleading, ‘... just get him signed’. They couldn’t have been sure, Fernandes’ reputation wasn’t yet so big in England. It was a measure of United fans’ desperation.

I wondered... didn’t know that much about Fernandes and my very knowledgeable and trusted Portuguese friend Eric, wasn’t sure. That wasn’t a good sign, but then Fernandes was coming from Sporting, while Eric’s loyalties lay with the red of Benfica.

To be fair Eric’s caution may have had more to do with United’s recent past record in signing players, it was hard to be confident, but his trepidation has transformed into something more like hope and optimism, ingredients now shared across the legion of Red Devils fans.

Right from making his debut in a drab scoreless draw with Wolves on Feb 1, Fernandes gathered the reins. From the beginning he looked like the leader United had been so badly craving for far too long. But could it last, was it a flash in the pan?

Over the next 6 weeks, a relatively short period in which to make a mark, Manchester United reinvigorated their top-four challenge in the Premier League, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and all but confirmed their place in the last eight of the Europa League. Their 11-game unbeaten run is their longest since the start of Solskjaer’s tenure.

It simply would not have happened without the 25-year-old Portuguese.

Sporting CP v CS Maritimo - Liga NOS
In the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Diogo Dalot, Bruno Fernandes is treading an increasingly well-worn track between Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United.
Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

That he had the weight of a £68m transfer tag around his neck and high expectancy-levels from long-suffering and frustrated fans seems not to have flinched the man from Sporting Lisbon.

Not only did he take everything in his stride, contribute to the scoring of 8 goals in 9 games, he’s added swagger, and despite being the new man, shown he’s not afraid to direct matters on the field. Even the normally hard to impress Roy Keane has been complimentary.

“We often talk about players taking time to settle at a club - it’s not taken him long has it?

“He seems a very good personality. It’s obviously a huge move for him, but he seems to be enjoying it. He’s got a little bit of arrogance about him.

“He’s brought leadership, but I think he’s brought it in a different way. People talk about leadership in terms of making tackles, but he’s just given everyone a lift, and that comes down to his quality.”

Burnley FC v Manchester City - Premier League
Even Roy Keane has been impressed by the new Portuguese.
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

That arrogance Keane talks about was evident in the way he shushed Pep Guardiola during the 2-0 win over City in the Manchester derby.

“I am so respectful of Pep, what he’s won and what he did for football, but at that moment, he didn’t respect me and he didn’t deserve my respect,” Fernandes told Sky Sports afterwards, adding that Pep had said something to him that the Portuguese didn’t like.

That spat with Guardiola predictably went down well with already admiring supporters. But his new team-mates are impressed too.

“He has an aura about him,” said Harry Maguire recently. Luke Shaw has lauded his “impact inside the dressing room” as well as on the pitch. “He is a different player,” added David de Gea.

Fernandes will possibly not welcome comparisons with Paul Pogba, but unlike the Frenchman he’s shown greater responsibility, contributing not only offensively, but in tracking back in defence as well. His leadership qualities are there for all to see. Players feed off him, when in the past they seemed overly inclined to give possession to Pogba, if the Frenchman could be found, and wait for something to happen. Often it didn’t, of course.

Already improving, Fred looks even more confident, Matic has an extra spring in his step, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United’s young marauding full-back is said to have benefitted from some one-on-one advice from his new team-mate.

United’s new number 18 is a risk-taker, often looking for the killer, penetrative pass, although neither wantonly nor recklessly. He understands his responsibility to the team. Fernandes is consummate with the ball at his feet and with arms directing where he’d like others to run, his assuredness in possession proves infectious to those around him.

His coach agrees... Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer -

“We feel we’ve added some X-factor and quality with Bruno,” said Solskjaer in February. “He gives us that little bit of a different flavour. He’s a player who likes to play penetrative passes, forward passes. He likes to take risks, which is what a Manchester United player should do.”

Since taking his Premier League bow, Fernandes ranks top amongst Manchester United players for shots, chances created and passes in the final third.

He’s produced more than three times as many passes into the opposition box as any of his team-mates, and is second in the Premier League only to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold since the beginning of February.

He can unlock defences from open play and provides the most effective link United have had between midfield and attack probably since the increasingly far-off days of Ferguson.

Suddenly United look again like something resembling their old traditional selves. Fernandes has started 8 games. In those, United have recorded 21 goals, a stat unheard of in the days of Moyes, van Gaal or Mourinho. They’ve gone from averaging 1.6 goals per game to 2.6.

Fernandes was named United Player of the Month for February. It was not a difficult choice. Following it up by being named Premier League Player of the Month for February a week later was of far greater significance.

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League
Despite having respect for Guardiola’s achievements in football, Fernandes was comfortable in rebuking the City manager for comments directed at him, which the Portuguese deemed inappropriate.
Photo by Matt McNulty - Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

United now 3 points shy of Chelsea and 5 of Leicester in the race for Champions League placings with 9 games left, are all of a sudden looking ominous, a classic race-horse, reins released with perfect timing by its jockey for the final sprint to the line.

Liverpool are out of sight, City too, but with an easier run-in than all other rivals, United are attracting nervous over-the-shoulder glances from the clubs immediately above them in 3rd and 4th.

The chase for Champions League football resumes again on Friday for the Manchester men, an eerie and empty first-ever visit to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium awaits. Without the February introduction of the man from Maia, near Porto, it would merely be a race for the Europa League.