It has been a while – if ever – since the Premier League has seen a player like Bruno Fernandes.
The Manchester United midfielder, who joined this January from Portuguese club Sporting CP, has so far been worth every single penny of the $70 million the Red Devils forked over. At 25 years old, Fernandes was minted as the PFA Player of the Month for February on Monday, and it’s no surprise to see him garner plaudits left and right since his arrival a month ago.
What makes Bruno Fernandes so wonderful to watch – and concurrently so valuable to Manchester United – is also what makes him look on paper to be total chaos personified. He is, quite literally, everywhere. When his movements are transcribed onto graphical images, Bruno Fernandes appears to be a chicken with his head cut off. He kind of is, but it’s obviously more nuanced than that.
First, the fun part. Here’s what his last three matches before that look like on paper, followed by his heat maps for the entire season thus far, from both Sporting CP first and then Manchester United. (Click here for a key of the StatsZone app dashboards)
As you can see, the new Manchester United talisman covers nearly the entire attacking half of the field. He also contributes a heavy amount defensively, to moderate success. This isn’t exactly what sets him completely apart, but it’s the start. Few players are able to cover this amount of attacking ground while having such an effect on the game. Kevin De Bruyne is a player with similar freedom, and he has budded into maybe the most destructive creative force in Europe.
Yet while de Bruyne is more of a facilitator, Fernandes is more of a nomad. The Portuguese international doesn’t exactly feature on the ball nearly as much as his Belgian counterpart across town, instead choosing to float and wander looking for pockets of space as his teammates share the workload. If you watch Bruno Fernandes off the ball, he’s continually serving as a foil for his fellow attackers, often drifting away from a ball-carrier’s direction where space is available hoping to either carry too many defenders or none at all.
Bruno Fernandes picks his spots.
That was never more evident than against Manchester City, where the midfielder had to take special care and not waste what precious little possession the Red Devils had. With the visitors holding an enormous possessional advantage at Old Trafford – Man City out-passed Manchester United 671-215 – Fernandes was forced to make the most of the scraps he could find. He started the game out on the right flank as Anthony Martial found joy down the opposite end, but soon drifted centrally and then to his favored left edge as Daniel James grew in influence on the ball. He eventually found his moment, first earning the key 29th minute foul before serving up the game’s most critical moment.
When he did deliver, it highlighted another of his wide-ranging skill set: Bruno Fernandes is a set-piece wizard. Not only does he consistently deliver excellent corners into dangerous areas, but his chipped free-kick was left on a platter for Anthony Martial on the opening goal. All told, Fernandes seemingly did more with his limited touches – 25 received passes, 24 attempted passes – than Manchester City did all 90 minutes while hoofing a massive 33 crosses and appearing devoid of any creative flair. At the end of the match, despite the huge gulf in possession, Manchester United had somehow out-shot Man City 12-7.
Watch the Every Touch video posted above. What do you notice? Yes, Manchester United was sloppy against Manchester City at times, and Fernandes included. That’s what happens when you play the Pep Guardiola swarm and press. Still, every time he loses the ball he races back to try and challenge, and every time he connects with a teammate there’s a calming presence before he races off to find space of his own off the ball.
Where else can you find a player with this varied and unique skill set?
De Bruyne is the most obvious comparison, but the Belgian does not tackle at such a rate – Fernandes has him almost double, with two tackles per game to de Bruyne’s 1-3. Tackling is still an area of improvement for Fernandes, having whiffed on all five of his attempts against Manchester City to leave him 10/29 so far in Premier League play, but the pressing output is the important part for an attacking player like Fernandes. Otherwise, statistically KDB has a mimic on his hands, which is high praise.
Mesut Ozil is a player that, when at his best, can be a versatile and diverse attacking player but he also wouldn’t dare produce the defensive contributions (0.9 tackles, 0.3 interceptions, and 0.1 clearances per game to Bruno Fernandes’ 2.0, 1.0, and 1.8). Mason Mount will track back every so often, but his usage is far more one-sided as the Chelsea youngster favors the left flank. Fernandes’ countrymate Joao Moutinho is closer statistically than one might think, considering he currently sits eighth in the Premier League in chances created, but he still does not get forward with the fluidity and consistency that Fernandes does, instead anchored in the middle of the Wolves formation and favoring the left side.
In typical Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fashion, the Manchester United boss compared his new signing to a Red Devils great in Paul Scholes, in part thanks to the number of the back of his shirt, and Wayne Rooney echoed that comparison just a few days ago, according to the Mirror, after Derby County was dropped by Manchester United in the FA Cup. In truth, Fernandes has a bit more flair than Scholes did, and that’s not a knock on the midfield legend. Fernandes simply seems to play with a little less strength and a little more finesse than was Scholes’ calling card.
There really is no other player quite like Bruno Fernandes, and he could be the foundation upon which Manchester United builds its new era. There is a new great player who calls the Premier League home, and that should excite fans of all teams, even those who are adversely affected by his magic.