Bruno Fernandes was back to his best during the 2022-23 season, but if Manchester United are to challenge for the title again, they need to collectively get to his level.

Few at Manchester United excelled during the ultimately miserable 2021-22 season, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first paying the price for their underachievement on the pitch and Ralf Rangnick unable to do much better.

The latter at least delivered a few home truths in his frank public assessments of United’s processes and structure, but some of the football seen under his guidance was probably the worst seen at Old Trafford during the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Bruno Fernandes still managed to record good numbers in terms of goal involvement output, but there was undoubtedly a perception he’d failed to reach certain levels. Whether that was fair or not is up for debate, because United as a collective weren’t in a good place and had an interim manager trying to implement a tactical system so different to what the players were used to.

“[Rangnick] tried his best. He is a good manager with good ideas, but it did not fit with everyone. This is because the team had been built with Ole and his idea, and then a new manager comes in with [their own ideas],” Fernandes told The Athletic last year.

Under Erik ten Hag, however, Fernandes has thrived. Obviously as a unit United have improved considerably due to the clarity provided by the Dutchman’s rigid principles, but Fernandes has been at the forefront of much that’s been good for the club over the past year, perhaps more so than he’s been given credit for.

It’s fair to say Marcus Rashford overshadowed most at United in 2022-23. His form at times was remarkable, and it was unequivocally the best season of his career. Even considering that, though, there’s an argument Fernandes was actually United’s most important player through the campaign and will continue to be so as the rebuild under Ten Hag moves into its second stage.

If United are to take the next step and become a genuine title challenger, Fernandes will be key – but first, the club need to realise they’re not making the most of him.

The Manager’s Lieutenant

Fernandes polarises opinion. Most would probably acknowledge he’s at the very least a good player, but he wouldn’t win many popularity contests.

That might sound like a given for a Manchester United player. Of course neutrals don’t tend to like them. But, over the past few years, there have even been pockets of United supporters who’ve had their patience tested by him.

His demeanour and body language don’t help, but Fernandes insists he’s misunderstood, telling BT Sport earlier this year: “Sometimes when I’m shouting, from the outside it seems like I’m saying something bad to my team-mates, but it’s the opposite way around. It’s the way I do it with the arms and everything. Sometimes I do it in a good way, but you see me waving my arms and you think it’s in a bad way.”

So, is he a whinger or a leader? It would be reasonable to suggest he’s both. Some may not be endeared by Fernandes’ vocal approach, but the same people would likely suggest a captain – and he’s worn the armband for most of the past year – needs to have such a personality.

“[Fernandes] is an example on the pitch with the energy he puts in, and for our tactical approach in both the transition moments,” Ten Hag said in February, and they certainly weren’t empty words.

Only five players in the Premier League tallied more pressures than Fernandes (921) this season. He drops down the list a bit when adjusted per 90 minutes, but he was still United’s most prominent presser. That he continually showcased such energy is particularly impressive considering he played more minutes across all competitions this season than any other outfield player in the top five leagues (5,163). In fact, no one else racked up more than 4,760 – he is a machine.

Bruno Fernandes minutes played table

The debacle against Liverpool at Anfield raised further questions about Fernandes’ attitude, however. He constantly berated officials; there were hints of play-acting; he even gave the linesman a little shove, an act he was probably lucky to avoid retrospective punishment for.

Four days later he produced one of his best performances of the season in the 4-1 UEFA Europa League defeat of Real Betis. He picked out Antony before the Brazilian’s gorgeous 20-yard curler; then he headed in Luke Shaw’s corner to make it 3-1. Earlier, he also played a key role in Rashford’s opener. In total, he created five chances.

Bruno Fernandes chances created vs Real Betis map

“He was the best player on the pitch and it showed his personality,” Ten Hag commented after the game. It wasn’t a performance that necessarily answered the question of whether he’d learned any lessons about his conduct in the Liverpool defeat, but in terms of professionalism and setting an example, it was a good response.

It also provided a timely reminder of just how much influence Fernandes has in this team. Sure, he only ended up with the one assist, but he was involved in every single goal.

Setting the Standards

Ask people who they think is the best midfielder in the Premier League, and most will say Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. Fair enough; this isn’t about trying to say Fernandes is actually better than him or anything like that. These debates are subjective.

This isn’t about saying Fernandes is “underrated” either, because the fact so many people seem to say that logically disproves the theory. No, the point is United should be capitalising on his talents even more than they do now.

Bruno Fernandes sequence involvements

He is one of the Premier League’s best, and Ten Hag’s tactics this season have helped him flourish again. His pressing exploits have already been touched on, but that’s also led to him averaging 1.0 possession regains in the final third every 90 minutes, ranking him 14th among players with at least 1,000 minutes played.

Fernandes’ willingness to seek out direct routes to goal has also had an impact. Only five midfielders played more long balls than him (201), fitting in nicely with United being the team to register the most direct attacks (102) and goals from such scenarios (nine). Looking for the runs of Rashford has been a particular feature of this strategy, setting the England forward up for 32 shots in open play this season. No other player in the English top flight teed up the same teammate more than 27 times in total, let alone just in open play. This goes some way to explaining why Fernandes played seven more through balls (35) than anyone else as well.

Bruno Fernandes to Marcus Rashford chances created

Fernandes’ long passes in open play have decreased year-on-year over the past three seasons, though, dropping from 228, to 218 and then to 194. This certainly feeds into the theory Fernandes is exercising more restraint in terms of looking for the ‘Hollywood ball’ so frequently. Evidence of this greater maturity and awareness is also prominent elsewhere.

His 58 secondary chances created – the pass before the pass that sets up a shot – is nearly double the 30 tallied in 2020-21 and 18 more than he recorded in 2021-22, highlighting a greater desire to play the smart ball rather than the killer ball. And yet, Fernandes’ overall creativity hasn’t suffered either – in fact, it’s increased considerably in some cases.

His assists fell from 12 to eight, but in that respect you’re only as good as the player on the end of the pass. A better way of measuring his creativity is to look at the total expected goals (xG) he’s assisted because it provides a quantifiable value to his passes. Fernandes’ figure in xG assisted (in open play) was 14.0, significantly more than any other player – yes, including De Bruyne (12.0) – in the Premier League this term, and a solid increase from 10.3 the season before.

Bruno Fernandes chances created map, Premier League 2022-23

In short, Fernandes is a hub of creativity but doesn’t have a reliable striker to put those chances away. Anthony Martial has probably run out of opportunities to prove he’s the right man; Wout Weghorst certainly wasn’t the one, irrespective of his admirable work rate. And yes, Fernandes’ link-up with Rashford was effective, but does anyone really expect him to become the 40-goal forward Ten Hag challenged him to be?

It’s unlikely, and that’s why United need to prioritise a world-class number nine this summer. Erling Haaland and his goalscoring exploits is the obvious – albeit extreme – example of what an out-and-out striker can bring, but it goes beyond just goals. These players, if they have the right profile, can offer a reliable out-ball for defenders in an age when centre-backs are pressed more intensely than ever before. And in Lisandro Martínez, United have a ball-playing centre-back more than capable of precisely pinging the ball over a high press to a striker.

Nevertheless, a greater goal threat in the penalty area would be the main draw and could truly maximise Fernandes’ creative brilliance.

He’s back to his best, but for United to reach the top, they need to get to Fernandes’ level.

Who were the most similar players to Bruno Fernandes across 2022-23? You can find this out, plus analyse thousands of other players in the new Opta Player Comparison tool.

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