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 would seem exceptional if you only compared results with similar games last season.

After all, United beat Tottenham Hotspur last season and drew 1-1 at Stamford Bridge. what’s the difference

Well, almost everything. Last season’s 3-2 win over Tottenham made a mockery of the arguments for and against Cristiano Ronaldo’s inclusion in the team. United played for most but Ronaldo broke through with a superb hat-trick. At Stamford Bridge, during Michael Carrick’s short time in charge, United played very defensively and scored thanks to a silly Jorginho error that allowed Chelsea to break from a set piece. They created a little more.

Erik ten Hag’s side looked in control and confident against Tottenham this time around, scoring Hugo Lloris throughout the first half before winning the game in the second half. On Saturday, they needed a superb late Casemiro header to secure a point at Stamford Bridge, but their opening to the game was again superb, Chelsea dominating the midfield enough to require Graham Potter to radically change his formation before half-time to ensure . did not exceed.

Having been destroyed 6-3 by Manchester City, United have been defensively strong just twice in four games (a long-range Alex Iwobi goal and a Jorginho penalty, rather than opening up through their defence). Their pressure is cohesive, and it has prevented Tottenham and Chelsea from playing from defense to midfield.

The trio are fluent in midfield, breaking down the opposition at speed. At times they have appeared in a 4-2-3-1, at other times a 4-3-3, with both formations against Tottenham at different stages of the game. Fred sat alongside Casemiro to help push Tottenham’s midfield three but then pushed forward to play alongside Bruno Fernandes – the Portuguese midfielder always looking to break down the opposition defence.

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

Runs from behind in attack and has dangerous shots from range. Perhaps most interestingly, United are a constant attacking threat but Jadon Sancho is still not at his best, Marcus Rashford has been wasteful in front of goal, and Antony, although excellent so far, is still in his early days at the club. In other words, Manchester United are not excelling through the singular magic of their strikers, that may come at a later date.

However, it is Fernandez who once again dominates the side. He scored a superb goal in a 2-0 win over Tottenham and created two great chances for Rashford and Antony in the first half at Stamford Bridge. A year after Fernandes’ dominance was marred by the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, this is now his side once again.

Fernandez is underrated and his influence in society is often forgotten. Since Fernandez’s arrival in January 2020, Manchester United have been a boring outfit and the league table has been worth a look since then. United were 36 points behind eventual winners Liverpool and four ahead of Burnley, Newcastle and other mid-table teams.

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Post Office Society score

1

Liverpool

70

2

In the city of Manchester

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

Armory

30

11

Crystal Palace

30

12

Everton

30

13

Burnley

30

14

Newcastle

30

Since then, United have been transformed. From Fernandez’s arrival until the end of the campaign, they scored the most points in the league.

Post Office Society score

1

Manchester United

32

2

In the city of Manchester

30

3

Liverpool

29

4

Armory

26

5

Chelsea

26

6

Tottenham

25

The following season they finished second behind Manchester City.

Post Office Society score

1

In the city of Manchester

86

2

Manchester United

74

3

Liverpool

69

4

Chelsea

67

5

Leicester

66

6

West Ham

65

Of course, it wasn’t all down to Fernandes, whose stats were boosted by a decent number of penalties. But he had 15 goals and an assist in 14 games in his first season and 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 have won the award more than four times in their Premier League career (Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane, Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie).

Fernandez’s impact was extraordinary and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to base the team around Fernandez as a No.10 rather than a double No.8 with Paul Pogba was the best of his United tenure.

And then, of course, United signed Ronaldo, and the side was based around Ronaldo instead of Fernandez. He largely fulfilled his individual responsibility but the side suffered as a whole. United dropped to sixth place and on 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 Athletics Asked if he was playing enough with Ronaldo earlier this season, Fernandes gave a diplomatic answer.

“I don’t think (it’s fair criticism) because most of my support last season was for him,” Fernandez said. “By my own numbers I just had a poor season. I don’t think it’s about Cristiano or me… It’s really good to play with Cristiano as the number 10 player. Because the players respect Cristiano so much that it creates more space because the opposition are afraid of him picking up the ball and scoring. They want to mark him and create an overload where he is.

As you would expect from a top-class attacking midfielder and popular striker, there have been examples of Fernandez and Ronaldo combining for goals. There is no personal problem between them, although Fernandes sometimes seems too respectful, sometimes forced to go to his more famous team-mate.

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However, this season’s numbers make for interesting reading. Here’s a chart looking at Fernandez’s combined expected goal (xG) and expected assist (xA) numbers for the season so far, along with information on whether or not Ronaldo played the majority of the game. (For clarity, “yes” means he played 62 minutes or more. “No” means he played 32 minutes or less.)

the Opposition Ronaldo? Fernandez xG+A

Brighton

No

0.41

Brentford

Yes

0.10

Liverpool

No

0.86

Southampton

No

0.87

Leicester

No

0.16

Armory

No

0.72

Man City

No

0.02

Everton

Yes

0.09

Newcastle

Yes

0.18

Tottenham

No

0.87

Chelsea

No

0.45

The pattern is fascinating. Fernandes was lively even in the defeat at Brighton when Ronaldo was withdrawn, then anonymous against Brentford when Ronaldo started. Ronaldo’s dismissal against Liverpool prompted a marked improvement from Fernandes, who had excellent performances against Southampton and Arsenal.

Admittedly, there were some quiet Fernandes displays against Leicester and in the hammering of Manchester City, but the pattern would return later. Playing mostly behind Ronaldo, Fernandes featured sparingly against Everton and Newcastle. Then, as Ronaldo was dropped against Tottenham and Chelsea, Fernandez starred again.

This is a relatively small sample size of 11 games. But this pattern feels significant, especially when the numbers back up the eye test.

To show that Fernandez’s xG and xA numbers haven’t increased in “non-Ronaldo” games since Ronaldo was introduced from the bench, here are the minutes the two played together and their combined xG – in other words, when? One has created an opportunity for the other.

the 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

Armory

32

0.00

Man City

0.00

Everton

61

0.03

Newcastle

72

0.07

Tottenham

0.00

Chelsea

0.00

In 3.75 games together, Fernandez and Ronaldo have assisted each other on just 0.19xG chances.

To put that into context, Fernandez created chances for Rashford against Tottenham and against Chelsea, which was individually higher than the xG value between Fernandez and Ronaldo at 3.75 games.

Ronaldo tends to score for himself, going short to touch the ball because he wants to connect. He often occupies Fernandez’s space, helping to drag opponents to create space.

While Rashford’s shooting has been erratic, his and Fernandes’ campaign has been structured and cohesive. United usually have another attacking option in the lines and at the back.

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

A crucial part of the move is Fernandes looking over his shoulder to check if Rashford is ready to run. Fernandez then drops down the left and Rashford runs into the right channel.

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That simple move creates defensive problems for Spurs – Eric Dier tries to get past Fernandes – and now Fred has two great options going forward. He goes for a run in behind and Rashford is likely to do better with this opportunity.

Here’s Rashford’s first goal in the 3-1 win over Arsenal. It’s the same thing – seeing Fernandes down the right, checking over his shoulder and Rashford ready to drive in from the left.

This time the ball is played through Fernandes and his deft outside foot ball finds Rashford who delivers another run into the right channel to score.

Fernandes is good at finding Rashford’s runs. Here’s a similar situation against Chelsea, with Casemiro slipping the ball to Fernandes, who then sends Rashford behind. His first touch here is heavy and Kepa shuts him down.

And, crucially, there is movement in the other direction. The goal was disallowed for offside and the Tottenham defense must have stopped playing knowing Fernandez was gone early. But it’s a good example of Rashford coming in from a short kick and darting the ball across to Fernandes on goal.

Also worth mentioning was Fernandez’s volley against Southampton earlier this season – in a completely different situation, he converted a deep Diogo Dalot cross. But again, in the build-up, we can see Fernandez’s head back as he sees Rashford’s run and knows to hang back and wait for space to open up.

Fernandez has earned a reputation as an individualist based on his performances since joining Manchester United. And there are valid criticisms; He’s sometimes guilty of trying killer balls too early, for example. But he was often too ambitious because there was no real infrastructure under Solskjaer or Ralf Rangnick. In the attacking phase the players were mostly left to fend for themselves and Fernandes did it better than anyone.

It’s a different story under Ten Hag. Fernandez needs to think more about the structure of the side and his positional responsibilities. Sometimes he is a No. 8, sometimes a No. 10, and sometimes a back runner. But it fits his skill set and his clear understanding of what’s unfolding around him suggests he’s capable of operating within this system. He has barely missed a minute this season, notably coming on as a stoppage-time substitute on opening day.

The Ten Hag won’t base his side entirely around a single player – which runs counter to his philosophy and partly explains why Ronaldo has been on the fringes – so Fernandes won’t be in the freewheeling role he enjoyed under Solskjaer. But he is the key player in Manchester United’s revival and the biggest winner of what everyone must surely now admit: United are better off without Ronaldo.

(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)



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