Man Utd are better for being a Bruno Fernandes team, not a Cristiano Ronaldo one

Last week represented a significant step forward for Manchester United, which might seem strange if the results were only compared to the equivalent games from last season.

After all, United also beat Tottenham Hotspur at home last season and drew 1-1 at Stamford Bridge. What is the difference?

Well, almost everything. The 3-2 win over Tottenham last season was almost a parody of the arguments for and against Cristiano Ronaldo’s inclusion in the side. United were largely outplayed, but Ronaldo broke through with a brilliant hat-trick. At Stamford Bridge, in Michael Carrick’s short spell in charge, United played very defensively and scored only thanks to a stupid mistake by Jorginho that allowed them to break from Chelsea’s ball. They created little.

This time Erik ten Hag’s side were in control and confident against Tottenham, peppering Hugo Lloris’s goal with shots throughout the first half before winning in the second half. They needed a superb late Casemiro header to claim a point at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, but their opener was once again superb, dominating the midfield to the extent that Graham Potter had to make a radical change in formation before half-time to ensure Chelsea were not overrun .

Since the 6-3 defeat at the hands of Manchester City, United have been defensively stronger, conceding just twice in four games (Alex Iwobi’s long-range goal and Jorginho’s penalty instead of opening up the defence). Their pressing is cohesive, which prevented Tottenham and Chelsea from playing from defense to midfield.

The midfield is fluid, and the trio is quick to break through the opposing team. Sometimes they looked like a 4-2-3-1, sometimes more like a 4-3-3, appearing in both formations against Tottenham at different stages of the game. Fred sat alongside Casemiro to help press Tottenham’s midfield trio, but then pushed forward to play alongside Bruno Fernandes — although the Portuguese midfielder was always trying to get in behind the opposition defence.

[Cristiano Ronaldo to be included in Manchester United’s squad for Europa League match against Sheriff]

In the attack, there are running backs and dangerous shots from a distance. Perhaps most interestingly, United are a constant attacking threat despite the fact that Jadon Sancho is still not at his best, Marcus Rashford remains wasteful in front of goal and Antony, while excellent so far, is still in his formative days at the club. In other words, Manchester United do not excel solely on the individual magic of their strikers, which could come later.

However, the man who once again dominates the team is Fernandes. He scored a superb goal in the 2-0 win over Tottenham and created two fine first-half chances at Stamford Bridge, for Rashford and Antony. After a year in which Fernandes’ prominence was threatened by the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, this is now his side again.

Fernandes remains underappreciated and his influence at the club is often forgotten. Upon Fernandes’ arrival in January 2020, Manchester United were shambolic and the league table from that point is worth a look. United were a full 36 points behind eventual title winners Liverpool and just four ahead of Burnley, Newcastle and other mid-table teams.

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pos Club points

1

Liverpool

70

2

Manchester City

51

3

Leicester

48

4

Chelsea

40

5

Manchester United

34

6

Tottenham

34

7

Wolverhampton

34

8

Sheffield United

33

9

Southampton

31

10

Arsenal

30

11

The Crystal Palace

30

12

Everton

30

13

Burnley

30

14

Newcastle

30

From that moment on, United was transformed. From the arrival of Fernandes until the end of the campaign, they collected the most points in the league.

pos Club points

1

Manchester United

32

2

Manchester City

30

3

Liverpool

29

4

Arsenal

26

5

Chelsea

26

6

Tottenham

25

The following season they finished second behind Manchester City.

pos Club points

1

Manchester City

86

2

Manchester United

74

3

Liverpool

69

4

Chelsea

67

5

Leicester

66

6

Western ham

65

Of course, Fernandes wasn’t responsible for that, and the statistics were boosted by a decent number of penalties. But he recorded 15 goals and assists in 14 games in his first season, then 30 in 37 games in his second season.

In his first calendar year at the club, he won the Premier League Player of the Month award four times. To put that into context, only six players (Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane, Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie) have won the award more than four times in their Premier League career.

Fernandes’ impact has been incredible and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to base the team around Fernandes as a number 10 rather than a double number 8 alongside Paul Pogba has been the best of his tenure at United.

And then, of course, United signed Ronaldo, and the side went from being based on Fernandes to being based on Ronaldo. He mostly fulfilled his individual responsibility, but the side as a whole suffered. United fell to sixth place, and in points they were as close to 19th-placed Watford as they were to champions Manchester City.

It’s a simple summary, but it tells a story. When The Athletic Asked if Fernandes was playing well enough with Ronaldo earlier this season, he gave a diplomatic answer.

“Most of my assists last season were for him, so I don’t think (it’s a fair criticism),” Fernandes said. “I just had a bad season in terms of my own numbers. I don’t think it’s about Cristiano or me… playing with Cristiano as a number 10 is actually very good because the players respect Cristiano so much that he creates more space, because the opponents are afraid of him taking the ball and scoring. They want to mark him and create an overload of where he is to mark him.”

And there are examples of Fernandes and Ronaldo combining for goals, as you would expect from a top attacking midfielder and a legendary striker. There are no personal problems between them, although Fernandes can sometimes seem too deferential, sometimes feeling forced to move on to his more famous team-mate.

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Still, the numbers from this season make for interesting reading. Here’s a chart showing Fernandes’ combined Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Assists (xA) numbers for the season so far, along with information on whether or not Ronaldo has played the majority of the game. (For clarity, “yes” means he played 62 minutes or more. “No” means he played 32 minutes or less.)

Opposition Ronaldo? Fernandes xG+A

Brighton

Not

0.41

Brentford

That

0.10

Liverpool

Not

0.86

Southampton

Not

0.87

Leicester

Not

0.16

Arsenal

Not

0.72

Man City

Not

0.02

Everton

That

0.09

Newcastle

That

0.18

Tottenham

Not

0.87

Chelsea

Not

0.45

The pattern is striking. Fernandes was lively even in the defeat to Brighton when Ronaldo was left out, then anonymous against Brentford when Ronaldo started. Ronaldo’s exit against Liverpool prompted a significant improvement from Fernandes, who was also excellent against Southampton and Arsenal.

Granted, there were some quieter performances from Fernandes against Leicester and in Manchester City’s attack, but the pattern returns after that. Fernandes offered little against Everton and Newcastle when he mostly played behind Ronaldo. Then, as Ronaldo was left out against Tottenham and Chelsea, Fernandes starred again.

This is a relatively small sample of 11 games. But the pattern seems significant, especially since the numbers back up the eye test.

And to show that Fernandes’ xG and xA numbers weren’t boosted in “non-Ronaldo” games after Ronaldo’s introduction from the bench, here are the minutes the two played together and the xG they combined for – in other words, when one created a chance for the other.

Opposition Ronaldo minutes CR & BF xG combination

Brighton

37

0.00

Brentford

90

0.05

Liverpool

4

0.00

Southampton

22

0.00

Leicester

22

0.06

Arsenal

32

0.00

Man City

0.00

Everton

61

0.03

Newcastle

72

0.07

Tottenham

0.00

Chelsea

0.00

In the equivalent of 3.75 games together, Fernandes and Ronaldo assisted each other for just 0.19xG chances.

To put that into context, Fernandes created chances for Rashford against Tottenham and against Chelsea which were both individually higher than the xG figure between Fernandes and Ronaldo from 3.75 games.

Ronaldo tends to run for himself, coming short to get the ball simply because he wants to be involved. He often occupies Fernandes’ space instead of helping to separate the opposition to create space.

While Rashford’s shooting was patchy, his and Fernandes’ movement was structured and cohesive. United usually have an attacking option between the lines and another in behind.

The best example came midway through the first half against Tottenham. When Fred receives the ball in midfield, Fernandes is actually part of the attacking duo – he on the right, Rashford on the left.

A key part of this move is Fernandes’s glance over his shoulder to check if Rashford is ready to run. Fernandes then drops down the left and Rashford runs into the right channel.

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That simple move causes problems for the Spurs defense — Eric Dier tries to get past Fernandes — and now Fred has two excellent options to pass forward. He runs in behind and Rashford might do better with this opportunity.

This is Rashford’s first goal in a 3-1 win over Arsenal. It’s a similar thing — Fernandes on the right, checking over his shoulder to see Rashford ready to run down the left.

This time the ball goes through Fernandes and his brilliant ball on the outside finds Rashford, who makes another of those runs into the right channel and scores.

Fernandes is good at finding Rashford’s runs. It’s a similar situation here against Chelsea, with Casemiro feeding the ball to Fernandes, who then passes behind for Rashford. His first touch here is heavy and Kepa shuts it down.

And, crucially, there is movement in the other direction. This goal was disallowed for offside and the Tottenham defense may have stopped playing, knowing that Fernandes had gone too soon. But that’s a good example of Rashford coming short and darting the ball in for Fernandes to blast through.

Fernandes’ volley against Southampton earlier this season is also worth mentioning — a completely different situation, as he headed home Diogo Dalot’s deep cross. But again, in the build-up, we only get to see the back of Fernandes’ head as he sees Rashford’s run and knows how to hold back and wait for space to open up.

Fernandes has a reputation as a maverick based on his performances since joining Manchester United. And there are valid criticisms; sometimes he was guilty of trying the killer balls too soon, for example. But he was often over-ambitious because there was no real underlying structure under Solskjaer or Ralf Rangnick. The players were mostly left to their own devices in the attacking phase, and Fernandes did it better than anyone.

It’s a different story under Ten Hague. Fernandes needs to think more about the structure of the team and his positional responsibilities. Sometimes it’s number 8, sometimes it’s number 10, and sometimes it’s a runner behind. But it suits his skills and his obvious awareness of what is going on around him suggests he is capable of functioning in this system. Notably, he barely missed a minute this season, only being substituted in stoppage time on the first day.

Ten Hag will not base his side entirely around one player — it goes against his philosophy and partly explains why Ronaldo has been on the fringes — so Fernandes is not in the free-flowing role he enjoyed under Solskjaer. But he is a key player in Manchester United’s revival and the biggest winner from what everyone must now admit: United play better without Ronaldo.

(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)



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