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

Last week represented a step forward for Manchester United, which may seem strange if you only compare the results to the same games 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. Last season’s 3-2 win over Tottenham almost mimicked the arguments for and against including Cristiano Ronaldo in the team. 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, only to be beaten by a Chelsea free-kick thanks to a silly mistake by Jorginho. They created other things.

This time, Erik de Haag’s side were controlled and confident against Tottenham, boosting Hugo Lloris’ goal in the first half before winning in the second half. On Saturday, they needed a superb late header from Casemiro to earn a point at Stamford Bridge, but their opener was superb again, with Graham Potter dominating midfield until Graham Potter needed The end of the half completely changed his composition to ensure Chelsea. They were not defeated

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

The midfield is fluid and these three quickly break down opponents. They looked like a 4-2-3-1 at times, more like a 4-3-3 at times, appearing in both formations against Tottenham at different stages of the game. Fred sat alongside Casemiro to help Tottenham’s middle three, but then pushed forward to play alongside Bruno Fernandes – although the Portuguese midfielder was always looking to get in behind the opposition defence.

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

In attack, there are runs at the back and dangerous shots from distance. Perhaps most interestingly, United are a constant threat in attack despite the fact that Jadon Sancho is still not at his best, Marcus Rashford is useless in front of goal and Anthony, although excellent so far, is still in his formative days. It is a club. In other words, Manchester United do not excel simply through the individual magic of their forwards, which may happen in the future.

The man once again dominating the team is Fernandez. He scored a superb goal in the 2-0 win over Tottenham and created two good chances for Rashford and Anthony in the first half at Stamford Bridge. After a year when Fernandez’s reputation was compromised due to the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, now this time he is on his side.

Fernandes is underappreciated and his influence at the club is often forgotten. Upon Fernandez’s arrival in January 2020, Manchester United were an unusual outfit and the league table from that point is worth a look. United were 36 points behind eventual champions Liverpool and only four behind Burnley, Newcastle and other mid-table teams.

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pose the gym 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

Crystal Palace

30

12

Everton

30

13

Burnley

30

14

Newcastle

30

From that point on, United was transformed. From the arrival of Fernandez until the end of the season, they scored the most points in the league.

pose the gym 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.

pose the gym Points

1

Manchester city

86

2

Manchester United

74

3

Liverpool

69

4

Chelsea

67

5

Leicester

66

6

West Ham

65

Of course, it wasn’t all about Fernandez, and his stats were boosted by a decent number of penalty kicks. But in his first season, he recorded 15 goals and assists in 14 games, and then in the second season, he recorded 30 goals in 37 games.

In his first calendar year at the club, he won the Premier League Player of the Month award four times. To put that into perspective, 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 entire Premier League career.

Fernandez’s impact was tremendous, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to deploy Fernandez as a No.10 instead of a dual No.8 alongside Paul Pogba was his best decision at United.

And of course, United signed Ronaldo and the team changed from Fernandez to Ronaldo. He fulfilled his individual responsibility to a large extent, but the party as a whole suffered. United dropped to sixth and are as close to 19th-placed Watford as they are to champions Manchester City.

This is a simple summary, but it tells a story. When Athletes Asked if Fernandez was playing well enough with Ronaldo earlier this season, he responded diplomatically.

Fernandez said: “Most of my assists last season were for him, so I don’t think (it’s a fair criticism). I just had a poor season in terms of my numbers. I don’t think it’s down to Cristiano or myself… “It’s really good to play with Cristiano as a number 10 because the players respect Cristiano so much that he creates more space because opponents are afraid of him getting the ball and scoring. They want to mark him and where he is.” It is supposed to mark, create an additional load.

And there are examples of Fernandez and Ronaldo combining to score, as you’d expect from a top-class attacking midfielder and legendary striker. There are no personal problems between them, although Fernandez can sometimes seem overly modest, sometimes feeling compelled to give a pass to his more famous team-mate.

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

opposition Ronaldo? Fernandez xG+A

for you

Not

0.41

Brentford

Yeah

0.10

Liverpool

Not

0.86

Southampton

Not

0.87

Leicester

Not

0.16

Arsenal

Not

0.72

Man City

Not

0.02

Everton

Yeah

0.09

Newcastle

Yeah

0.18

Tottenham

Not

0.87

Chelsea

Not

0.45

The pattern is impressive. Fernandez was lively even in the defeat against Brighton when Ronaldo was dropped, then unknown against Brentford when Ronaldo started. Ronaldo’s omission against Liverpool saw a marked improvement from Fernandez, who was also excellent against Southampton and Arsenal.

Admittedly, there were some quieter displays from Fernandez against Leicester and at Manchester City, but the pattern returned after that. Fernandez had little to offer against Everton and Newcastle, playing mainly behind Ronaldo. Then, as Ronaldo was sidelined against Tottenham and Chelsea, Fernandez came on again.

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

And to show that Fernandez’s xG and xA numbers in “non-Ronaldo” games didn’t increase after Ronaldo was introduced from the bench, here are the minutes the two have played together and their combined xG – in other words, when One has created an opportunity for the other.

opposition Ronaldo minute Combination of CR and BF xG

for you

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, Fernandez and Ronaldo have assisted each other with just 0.19xG chances.

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

Ronaldo tends to run for himself and stops short of touching the ball just because he wants to be involved. He often occupies Fernandez’s space rather than helping separate opponents to create space.

While Rashford’s shooting was patchy, his and Fernandes’ movement was structured and coherent. United usually have one attacking option between the lines and another at the back.

The best example was in the middle of the first half against Tottenham. When Ferd receives the ball in midfield, Fernandez is effectively part of a double – he on the right, Rashford on the left.

A key part of this move is Fernandes looking over his shoulder to check Rashford’s readiness to run. Fernandez then drops to the left and Rashford goes into the right channel.

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That simple move causes Spurs defensive problems – Eric Dier is trying to pass Fernandez – and Fred now has two excellent forward passing options. He goes for a run at the back and Rashford might have done better with the chance.

Here’s Rashford’s first goal in the 3-1 win over Arsenal. It’s a similar thing – Fernandez, on the right, checks over his shoulder to see Rashford ready to make a run down the left.

This time the ball is played through Fernandez and his brilliant off-foot ball finds Rashford, who puts another one into the right channel and scores.

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

And most importantly, there is movement in the other direction. The goal was ruled out for offside and Tottenham’s defense could have stopped the game knowing Fernandez was gone too soon. But this is a good example of Rashford coming short and chipping the ball to Fernandez to cross the goal.

Wally Fernandez against Southampton earlier this season is also worth mentioning – a completely different occasion, as he converted a Diego Dalot deep pass. But again, on completion, we can only see behind Fernandez as he sees Rashford’s run and knows to stay back and wait for space to open up.

Based on his performance since joining Manchester United, Fernandez has a reputation as an individualist. And there are valid criticisms; For example, he has sometimes been guilty of testing killer balls too early. But he was often over-ambitious because there was no real infrastructure under Solskjaer or Ralf Rangnick. The players were largely left to their own devices in the attacking phase and Fernandez did it better than anyone.

It’s a different story under Ton Haag. Fernandez should think more about the structure of the team and his positional responsibilities. Sometimes he’s #8, sometimes #10, and sometimes he’s a running back. But it fits his skill set, and his obvious awareness of what’s unfolding around him shows that he’s capable of functioning within the system. Remarkably, he barely missed a minute this season and was only substituted in stoppage time on Opening Day.

Ten Hoag doesn’t completely build his team around a single player – that goes against his philosophy and partly explains why Ronaldo has been on the sidelines – so Fernandez is not in the freewheeling role he enjoyed under Solskjaer. But he is a key player in Manchester United’s revival and the biggest winner of what everyone has to admit: United are better without Ronaldo.

(Top photo: Mark Atkins/Getty Images)



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