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

Last week marked a significant step forward for Manchester United, which may seem surprising if you only compare the results to similar games last season.

After all, United beat Tottenham Hotspur at home last season and drew 1-1 at Stamford Bridge. What’s 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. United won heavily, but Ronaldo scored an impressive hat-trick. At Stamford Bridge, during Michael Carrick’s short spell in charge, United played very defensively and only scored thanks to a silly mistake from Jorginho that allowed them to escape a Chelsea game. They created little else.

This time, Erik ten Hag’s winger was in control and confident against Tottenham, setting up a Hugo Lloris goal in the first half before winning the game in the second half. On Saturday, they needed Casemiro’s superb late header at Stamford Bridge, but their opening to the game was again excellent, dominating the midfield as much as Graham Potter needed before half-time. radically change his formation to ensure Chelsea. not many were caught.

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

The midfield is fluid, with a back three moving quickly through the opposition. Sometimes they look like a 4-2-3-1, sometimes more like a 4-3-3, appearing in both formats against Tottenham at different stages of the game. Fred sat alongside Casemiro to help Tottenham’s midfield triangle, but then progressed to play alongside Bruno Fernandes – although the Portuguese midfielder always looked 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 the range. Perhaps most impressively, United are a constant attacking threat despite Jadon Sancho still not at his best, Marcus Rashford remaining unbeaten in front of goal, and Antony, though brilliant so far, still in his days. The builders are in the club. In other words, Manchester United will not thrive solely on individual magic from their strikers, which may come later.

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

Fernandes is underrated and his impact at the club is often overlooked. With the arrival of Fernandes in January 2020, Manchester United were a shambolic outfit and the league table from then on is worth a look. United were a total of 36 points behind eventual winners Liverpool and just four ahead of Burnley, Newcastle and the other teams in the table.

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Pos Klub 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

Warehouse

30

11

Crystal Palace

30

12

Everton

30

13

Burnley

30

14

Newcastle

30

Since then, United has changed. From the arrival of Fernandes until the end of the campaign, they collected the most points in the league.

Pos Klub Points

1

Manchester United

32

2

Manchester City

30

3

Liverpool

29

4

Warehouse

26

5

Chelsea

26

6

Tottenham

25

The following season, they finished second behind Manchester City.

Pos Klub Points

1

Manchester City

86

2

Manchester United

74

3

Liverpool

69

4

Chelsea

67

5

Leicester

66

6

West Ham

65

Of course, this was not the case only for Fernandes, and his statistics were increased by a number of excellent penalties. But he scored 15 goals and assists in 14 games in his first season, then scored 30 goals in 37 games in his second season.

In his first 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 entire Premier League career.

Fernandes’ impact has been extraordinary and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to base the side around Fernandes as a No. 10, rather than as a No. 8 duo alongside Paul Pogba, has been the best of his United tenure.

And then, of course, United signed Ronaldo, and the side went from Fernandes’ base to being around Ronaldo. He largely fulfilled his individual responsibility, but the side as a whole suffered. United dropped to sixth and in terms of points, they were as close to 19th-placed Watford as champions Manchester City.

It’s a simple summary, but it tells a story. If The Athletic Asked if he was playing well enough with Ronaldo earlier this season, Fernandes 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 numbers. I don’t think it’s about Cristiano or me… playing with Cristiano as a No. 10 is really good because the players respect Cristiano so much “They think he’s creating more space because opponents are afraid he’s going to catch the ball and score. They want to mark him and create a load where he marks him.”

There are examples of Fernandes and Ronaldo combining for goals, as you would expect from an attacking midfielder and a legendary striker. There is no personal problem between them, although Fernandes seems to be a bit too cocky at times, sometimes having to move on to his more famous partner.

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

Liberaburu Ronaldo? Fernandes xG+A

Brighton

i don’t

0.41

Brentford

yes

0.10

Liverpool

i don’t

0.86

Southampton

i don’t

0.87

Leicester

i don’t

0.16

Warehouse

i don’t

0.72

Man City

i don’t

0.02

Everton

yes

0.09

Newcastle

yes

0.18

Tottenham

i don’t

0.87

Chelsea

i don’t

0.45

The example is interesting. Fernandes also came alive in the defeat at Brighton when Ronaldo was sidelined, then was anonymous against Brentford when Ronaldo started. Since Ronaldo was dropped against Liverpool, Fernandes provided a significant boost, and he was also good against Southampton and Arsenal.

True, Fernandes had some quieter displays against Leicester and in the hammering at Manchester City, but the style returned later. Fernandes offered little against Everton and Newcastle while playing mostly behind Ronaldo. Then, since Ronaldo was left out against Tottenham and Chelsea, Fernandes played again.

These 11 games are a small sample size. But the sample feels important, especially since the number backs up the eye test.

And to show that Fernandes’ xG and xA numbers in “non-Ronaldo” games haven’t increased since Ronaldo was benched, here are the minutes the two have played together and their combined xG have done – in other words, when one has created a chance for the other.

Liberaburu Ronaldo minute Combo CR & BF xG

Brighton

37

0.00

Brentford

90

0.05

Liverpool

4

0.00

Southampton

22

0.00

Leicester

22

0.06

Warehouse

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

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

Ronaldo tends to run away, coming up short to get a hand on the ball because he wants to get involved. He often occupies Fernandes’ space rather than helping push opponents apart to create space.

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

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

An important part of this move is Fernandes looking over his shoulder to check that Rashford is ready to run. Fernandes then dives down the left and Rashford runs down the right channel.

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That simple move causes Spurs defensive problems – Eric Dier tries to pass Fernandes – and now Fred has two excellent options for passing forward. He goes behind and Rashford could have done better with this chance.

Here is Rashford’s first goal in the 3-1 win over Arsenal. That’s it – Fernandes on the right, checks on his shoulder as Rashford is ready to run in from the left.

This time the ball is played to Fernandes and his brilliant outside ball finds Rashford, who runs one into the right channel, and scores.

Fernandes is good at spotting Rashford’s runs. Here’s a similar situation against Chelsea, with Casemiro dropping the ball to Fernandes, who then crosses to Rashford. His first contact here is heavy and Kepa is burning him.

And, importantly, there is movement in the other direction. The goal was disallowed for offside and the Tottenham defense may have given up on the game, knowing that Fernandes was gone too soon. But it’s a good example of Rashford coming up short and flicking the ball for Fernandes to cross into the goal.

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

Fernandes is known as an individual based on his performances since joining Manchester United. And there are real criticisms; he has sometimes been guilty of attempting fatal shots early on, for example. But it was often too ambitious because there was no real core structure under Solskjaer or Ralf Rangnick. The players were mostly left to defend themselves in the attacking phase and Fernandes did it better than anyone.

It’s a different story under Ten Hag. Fernandes will have to think more about his side structure and positional responsibilities. Sometimes it’s the number 8, sometimes it’s the number 10, sometimes it’s a little bit behind. But it’s his talent and his obvious awareness of what’s going on around him that shows he can work in this system. It’s worth noting that he barely missed a minute this season, only to be substituted on opening day in stoppage time.

Ten Hag won’t completely build his side around one player – that goes against his philosophy and partly explains why Ronaldo has been on the move – so Fernandes isn’t in the free-flowing role he had under Solskjaer. he loved it. But he has been a key player in Manchester United’s revival and the biggest winner of what everyone must surely now admit: United are playing better without Ronaldo.

(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)



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