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Bruno Fernandes

Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United, £67.7m

Bruno Fernandes being named the Premier League’s player of the month for February was recognition of the fine start he has made to his career at Manchester United, who have since truly returned to contention to qualify for the Champions League. In the absence of Paul Pogba, United had lacked creativity in midfield but since Fernandes’ arrival – he signed a five-and-a-half-year contract to follow Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon – he is yet to experience defeat in his nine appearances.

United have won seven of those fixtures. Fernandes also scored three goals, and registered four assists, during them. In the Premier League alone he has scored twice and registered three assists, justifying him being named player of the month. Where Pogba was once considered essential to United’s ambitions, Fernandes’ influence means he increasingly appears expendable. There has also been further improvement in fellow midfielders Scott McTominay and Fred, and a revival in Nemanja Matic’s form that has contributed to him being awarded a new, two-year contract.

Beyond United’s improving defence there is therefore perhaps a further reason for them to continue to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s methods. Since his appointment, on a permanent basis, as United’s manager, their major signings – Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James, Harry Maguire and Fernandes – have all excelled.

Tactical analysis
During his time at Sporting, Fernandes demonstrated he poses a consistent threat in the final third. For a midfielder he provided a regular source of goals – since his debut in August 2017 a total of 52, many of which came from distance, and owed to his fine shooting technique (below), either during open play or from free-kicks.

That technique, particularly off of his right foot, is a significant strength and involves him gaining both power and accuracy when shooting across goal – potentially adding swing and curve in both directions, and therefore often around defenders or goalkeepers, from a wider position. Unlike many strikers, Fernandes shoots most effectively when he is drifting away from central positions, which invites him to bend those efforts into the furthest corner.

A consistent move has been attacking the spaces between a full-back and central defender, and then shooting with power and accuracy across goal, either with his instep or the outside of his foot and towards the bottom corner. He often played in such advanced territory for Sporting that he could be seen finishing the second phase of an attack, having instinctively gambled on second balls, and finished from closer range.

Similarly to other goalscoring midfielders, Fernandes has also regularly scored from the penalty spot. His favoured approach involves adding a skip to his run up, just before striking, and demonstrates his confidence and the relative bravery that are significant features of his wider influence, and which contribute to his creative abilities.

He is effective in both deeper and wider positions, where he can start attacks. One technique involves him pausing in possession (below), to encourage teammates to adopt more effective positions and to observe, in greater detail, the spaces and options available. If that can draw defenders – often in isolation – it can also create spaces for teammates, or encourage Fernandes to adopt a superior position, as Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have impressively been seen doing for Barcelona and Spain.

A further strength involves his height, which means that his teams can press with a 4-4-2 formation through him advancing from midfield to alongside a striker while remaining available to withdraw into central midfield to provide a further number or negate a potential overload. When he does so the aggression, desire and intelligence with which he presses – when he adjusts to subtle changes of direction from the ball carrier – not only make him effective, but similar to his compatriot Bernardo Silva.

Role at Manchester United
Fernandes impressed throughout February, following his arrival in late January, contributing to a draw with Wolves, victories over Chelsea and Watford, and United advancing beyond Club Bruges in the Europa League. He has so far been used in a deeper attacking role than that seen at Sporting, even if he nominally starts as their number 10, largely bccause those who have featured in front of him – Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Odion Ighalo – already make runs in central areas and the spaces he often sought in Portugal.

It is for that reason that his responsibilities are more creative than they previously were. He continues to test opposing goalkeepers from outside the penalty area, and is also developing a promising relationship with the classy Juan Mata. The Spaniard’s intelligent movements and combinations help to encourage Fernandes to perform to his best, between the lines; Mata’s body shape and movements invite combinations with and create spaces for others, and complement Fernandes’ desire to pause with possession.

Those qualities can be expected to prove particularly valuable against opponents defending with numbers and in a lower block, which is when United have often struggled. Fernandes’ final ball, however, regardless needs to improve.

His variety means that he can unlock defences from central and wider positions, on both sides of the pitch, but the quality of his release, particularly from deeper positions, can sometimes lack accuracy. Even if Solskjaer intends on developing a team that is both attacking and dominates possession, United will need to retain the ability to swiftly attack on the counter, from those deeper positions.

The development of the manager’s favoured 4-2-3-1 particularly intrigues. Fernandes is already combining effectively with an overlapping left-back, especially via balls inside the defending full-back; wider positions from his role as their 10 invite him to play deft balls over or across opposing defence towards those attacking from the right (above).

If that already complements James, Mata and Greenwood, the return to fitness of Marcus Rashford, and therefore towards the left of United’s attack, is likely to enhance an already creative, fluid inside channel. Solskjaer’s team is capable of consistently offering power and penetrations in the final third, often without the assistance of further numbers and runners.

Bruno Fernandes

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