With Manchester United going through a rough patch, we look at one of the reasons for their struggles: an over-reliance on Bruno Fernandes.
We’ll probably never know if Bruno Fernandes’ dramatic late winner away to Fulham last weekend spared Erik ten Hag from getting sacked, but the Portuguese midfielder being the one to save the day fittingly summed up his Manchester United career to date.
He almost repeated the feat in the Champions League on Wednesday. His penalty put 10-man United 3-2 up away to FC Copenhagen in the second half before two late goals from the hosts left Ten Hag’s men in ruins and staring ominously at the prospect of elimination.
Make no mistake, Man Utd are going through a difficult period. Granted, compared to the glory years under Sir Alex Ferguson, you could argue much of the last decade falls into the same category – but things would have been worse without Fernandes.
Of course, he isn’t a universally popular player; neutrals widely seem to have a real disdain for the United captain, and even some among the club’s own support are ambivalent towards him because his personality often appears so abrasive. Fernandes is very vocal and emotional on the pitch, and how this manifests does rub a lot of viewers the wrong way.
However, it’s not unfair to suggest his on-field persona colours some people’s perception of him as a player, suggesting he’s less talented than the reality. Whether he’s a good captain or not isn’t our focus here; for those of us who don’t work with him day to day, it’s impossible to actually provide a conclusion to that debate.
But highlighting how vital he is to United is possible, and while that may not sound like a particularly hot take, there’s an argument he’s the most important player – in the context of every player’s own team – in the Premier League.
Ever since Fernandes joined United at the end of the winter transfer window in 2020, he’s probably been the first name on the teamsheet. This is partly impacted by his supreme fitness levels and availability, with only James Tarkowski (12,993) and James Ward-Prowse (13,186) playing more minutes (including all added time) among outfielders in the Premier League since Fernandes’ (12,597) debut on 1 February 2020. Another way of looking at that is, Man Utd have played 139 Premier League games over this period and Fernandes has been off the pitch for just 977 minutes and 50 seconds, which is less than 11 matches in total.
But beyond Fernandes’ physical capacity to play so often, the other element at work here is United’s reliance – or over-reliance – on him; if he had to miss a prolonged period, who would they look to as a reliable creator?
We can put United’s reliance on Fernandes into numerical context by looking at expected goals (xG) assisted; so, the cumulative xG value of shots that directly follow a given player’s passes. This allows us to quantify a player’s ability of finding teammates in dangerous positions, providing a good indication of creative ability.
Since the start of 2020-21, Fernandes’ first full season in the Premier League, his 40.6 xG assisted is comfortably better than anyone else, with Kevin De Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold (both 32.7) the only other players to break 30. Sure, Fernandes’ significant minutes total gives him an upper hand, but when considered on a per-90-minute basis (minimum 3.6 xG assisted total), he’s only behind De Bruyne (0.44) on 0.35, meaning he could reasonably expect to set up a goal roughly once every three games based on the quality of chances he’s created.
This is a high standard of creativity sustained over a long period of time. The fact he tops De Bruyne – even accounting for the minutes advantage – despite playing in a much poorer team is a good indicator by itself of just how effective Fernandes is, but when we look at the numbers on a club level, they help to paint a picture of a team that would be in trouble without him.
In each of his three full seasons in the Premier League, Fernandes has led the Man Utd team for xG assisted. Now, that’s not necessarily surprising, but where the data reflects especially poorly on United is how big a proportion of their overall non-penalty xG (np-xG) is tied to Fernandes’ passes.
Last season was Fernandes’ best at United in almost every measurable way, including his xG assisted of 16.8, which was the highest (by 2.9) in the Premier League. That accounted for 25.2% of Man Utd’s overall np-xG; not only was that the greatest proportion across all clubs in the Premier League, but no other United player contributed to more than 7.2% (Jadon Sancho).
The situation wasn’t quite so extreme the two seasons before, but it was similar. In 2021-22, Fernandes’ 8.6 xG assisted equated to 16.5% of United’s overall np-xG. That was second only to Raphinha at Leeds United (18.1%) in the whole division, while the second-highest share recorded by a Man Utd player was 7.6% (Sancho). In 2020-21, Fernandes’ xG assisted was 11.4, or 21.9% of the club’s np-xG total; Luke Shaw (11%) was the only other player to contribute to more than 6.5%, and the Portugal star topped the chart when looking at the whole Premier League.
And this season it’s looking very much like a familiar tale. Over the first three months of the campaign, Fernandes’ key passes have totalled 3.8 xG assisted, or 25.6% of United’s overall np-xG figure; the next closest to him in terms of proportion is Marcus Rashford on 8.5%.
So, while Fernandes has created at least 75 chances in open play across each of his three full seasons at the club, no other United player has tallied more than 43 during any one of those campaigns. Last term, for instance, Sancho teed up 43 open-play attempts for teammates (admittedly a decent return given his prolonged absence) and was second to Fernandes with 98. No one else went over 30 (Fred and Rashford).
The issue of a lack of alternative creators has been exacerbated this season by a dearth of reliable goalscorers, with Fernandes and Scott McTominay (three goals each) the only United players to have scored more than once in the Premier League. And it’s not like Fernandes hasn’t been in threatening positions looking to create for the attackers; his 64 touches in Zone 14 (the central area directly outside the opponents’ penalty box) is second only to Rodri in the competition, but the chances that are falling to the forwards – namely Rashford and Rasmus Højlund – aren’t being put away.
It may not sound that alarming or shocking to have one main creative presence; it’s better to have one than not, right? But the point is how much United depend on Fernandes and are sorely lacking proper ingenuity elsewhere in the side. Look at Manchester City; granted, the best team in the world serves as an extreme example, but that’s the level United aspire to. In each of the past three full seasons, De Bruyne has led the way for chances created, but each time he’s been one of at least seven players to tee up 30 open-play chances or more. The most he’s been clear of second place in that metric in the City squad is 21; Fernandes has created at least 34 more open-play opportunities than his colleagues in each campaign, and over the same period the most players United have had with at least 30 key passes in a season is four.
City share the creative burden around a group of players. Not only does this make them less predictable because creativity can come from nearly anywhere on the pitch, but it also means they have game-changers on the bench and they’re more than capable of coping in the event De Bruyne is absent for a while, such as this season. Were United without Fernandes for a couple of months, you’d worry for them.
Is it any wonder then that Fernandes has covered more ground (128.8 kilometres) than anyone else in the Premier League this season? Whether that’s down to him trying to take responsibility because United are weak in many areas, or just him overplaying his hand and lacking positional discipline, who knows.
Either way, you wonder where they’d be without Fernandes had they not signed him in the first place, and that’s without even really looking at his goals, which have been worth 35 Premier League points to United since he joined, six more than those of any other player.
Sure, they’d have signed someone else/other players, so we’re obviously not suggesting a situation where all of those chances created disappear, but when you consider United’s recruitment in recent years – and potentially as far back as Ferguson leaving – it’s hardly a foregone conclusion that they’d have bought a different player with a similarly impressive output. In fact, that’s very difficult to imagine.
In any other era, Fernandes would probably be considered a United and Premier League great; he feels wasted in this one.