Paul Scholes

Premier League is better with unique Fernandes magic

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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.

Solskjaer bemoans poor Man United first half performance

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Manchester United seemed to be holding up strong defensively early as Manchester City attacked with the ball in the first leg of the League Cup semifinal on Tuesday.

Then, Bernardo Silva unleashed a moment of brilliance in the 17th minute, and for the next 28 minutes, Man United crumbled as Man City built up a 3-0 halftime lead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

“From their goal until half-time, that is the worst that we have played,” Man United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told Sky Sports. “From the first goal to half-time we just could not cope with that setback. We were running in between. The pressure didn’t work and we let them play. Our heads dropped. We just made decisions that we should not do.”

Whatever the gameplan was, it appeared that either the players were incapable of executing it, or they lacked the ability to do so. Man City players constantly found time and space to turn and attack the Man United defense, and Man United struggled to string more than a few passes together at a time in the first half.

The team, even with Paul Pogba fit and in the lineup, lacks a strong, vocal leader like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes or Gary Neville to get everyone on the same page while on the field. Instead, as Solskjaer mentioned, players are dropping their heads and not pressuring the ball, leading to more goals.

After likely lighting into his team at halftime, Solskjaer said he did get a response from his team.

“That needed sorting at half-time… Someone needed to take the responsibility and we did that in the second half,” Solskjaer said. “When you come in at half-time with that result then pride is one word that you speak about. Make sure you win the second half and you are in the tie. Of course, it’s a difficult task that we have got in front of us but that second half at least gives us something to hang on to. After that second half, we have got something that we believe in.”

Can Man United buy its way back to glory?

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By all accounts, Manchester United is having a woeful start to the Premier League season. However, the front office reportedly believes it can solve the crisis at the club with strategic purchases over the next two seasons.

According to a report in the Telegraph, Manchester United is looking to make eight signings spread through the next two summer transfer windows. The report claims they’ve already created a shortlist of targets and one may even be acquired in the upcoming winter transfer window in January. Players like Leicester City’s James Maddison and Ben Chillwell have been rumored to be on Man United’s radar in recent days, as it looks to improve its squad.

[READ: Maddison pulls out of England squad]

There’s no doubt that Man United’s team is in dire straights. From the days of Sir Alex Ferguson where the team had Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and many others, the current squad absolutely pales in comparison.

This summer was supposed to be a massive one for the club after another season outside the top four. And yet, the only major signing was Harry Maguire. Ironically, one of the summer’s first signings for current manager – for how long, who knows? – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Daniel James, has been very good when fit.

While on defense Man United is decent, in the final third, the Red Devils are woeful. With Anthony Martial still out injured and the departures of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez this summer, Marcus Rashford looks too under pressure to handle all the responsibility right now. Man United has only scored one goal from open play in the last five games, and it’s not looking like things will improve that much even when Paul Pogba and Martial return from injury.

So it raises the question: Can Man United buy its way out of trouble? The answer, is maybe.

Manchester City spent boatloads of money, and it did end up with a first Premier League-era title in 2012. Only Micah Richards was from the club’s youth system in the squad. The latest smart purchases from Man City has put the club on a path to long-term success.

And yet, it’s not like Man United hasn’t spent a ton of money over the last decade chasing success. Since Ferguson retired, millions were spent on signing so many players, some of whom turned out to be good, but none turned out to be great. There was Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. Then Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, and Angel Di Maria. Then Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Anthony Martial. Soon after it was Pogba and Eric Bailley and don’t forget Henrik Mkhitaryan. How much did Victor Lindelof, Lukaku and Sanchez cost Man United?

I could go on even further, but the point is made. Man United has spent tons, and it seems like with no plan.

The only way this new plan works is if they buy smart and buy players who fit well in a system, not just the ones who are shining in other systems.

Rooney: With Guardiola, England ‘could have won everything’

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Between 2000-2008, the England National Team had some of the best individual players in their positions in all of world soccer. Yet they never made it past the quarterfinals in any tournament they competed in, and the “Golden Generation” came to a relative end with England failing to qualify for the 2008 European Championship all together.

According to Wayne Rooney, in a sit down with Roger Bennett from Men in Blazers on the Wayne Rooney Podcast, had England had a better coach, they would have won it all.

[READ: USMNT Roundtable from the PST Staff]

“You look at our team ten years ago and we arguably had the best group of players in world football,” Rooney said. “Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Gerrard, Scholes, Lampard, Beckham, Myself, Michael Owen. Our team then, if we had Guardiola, with that group of players, we would have won everything. No doubt about it.”

If you’re like me and you’ve enjoyed Rooney’s honest chats with Rog, it’s not super surprising to hear him speak this off the cuff about a major moment earlier in his career. There’s a lot to break down from this comment, though.

Rooney’s first manager for England was the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksen. Eriksen, when he took over England in 2001, was coming off leading Lazio – yes Lazio – to the Serie A title, and had previous success with Fiorentina, Roma, and Benfica in Portugal.

He was ultimately criticized for his lack of fire and emotion on the touchline, as he watched England get knocked out of the quarterfinals at both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and the 2004 European Championships. The 2004 Euros and 2006 World Cup exits were both on penalty kicks, both to Portugal.

Rooney of course was injured against Portugal in the 2004 tournament, and had been injured in the run up to the 2006 World Cup and wasn’t at his best for that tournament either.

Perhaps the biggest indictment against Eriksen’s leadership – and that of the managers before him – was that Paul Scholes retired from international duty at just 30-years old, despite being one of the best holding midfielders in the world. Eriksen had tried, repeatedly to somehow fit Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Scholes into a 4-4-2, with one forced to play along the wing, and Scholes apparently decided if he wasn’t valued enough, he’d quit while he was ahead.

You wonder if Guardiola, or any coach today, with the value played on a good holding midfielder, would have made Scholes the first name on the teamsheet.

Things didn’t get much better for England after Eriksen, and Steve McLaren failed to qualify England for the 2008 Euros and was run out of town, but the damage was done.

So could Guardiola have won the World Cup with the former Golden Generation? Perhaps. But Guardiola would have struggled to get all these individual talents – many of whom were rivals for their club teams – to play together and play for the flag on their chest.

Listen to the rest of Rooney’s chat with Rog below.

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Absurd Paul Scholes pass has Premier League fans all nostalgic

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Vincent Kompany‘s testimonial on Wednesday featured some big names from the former Manchester City defender’s time in the Premier League, and one in particular put jaws on the floor.

Paul Scholes, whose time at City’s cross-town rivals Manchester United overlapped Kompany’s Premier League journey by four years, produced a moment of brilliance that brought fans back to his time in midfield for the Red Devils. The 44-year-old donned a dark blue shirt for the Premier League All-Stars side at Kompany’s testimonial and wow’d the crowd.

With Robin Van Persie and Robbie Keane breaking forward, Scholes took a square pass from Cesc Fabregas and produced a stunning flick with the outside of his boot that fell perfectly in line for the two strikers on a run. Unfortunately, both Keane and van Persie went for the ball, and they ran into each other allowing Jolean Lescott to recover and end the chance.

The match ended in a 2-2 draw as Benjani Mwaruwari scored a last-minute equalizer for the Manchester City Legends. Martin Petrov opened the scoring for Man City Legends, but the Premier League All-Stars took the lead through goals by van Persie and Keane before the late goal left things all square.

Current Manchester City players David Silva and Sergio Aguero were on hand to participate, as were former City players Samir Nasri, Joe Hart, Kolo Toure, Mario Balotelli, and Pablo Zabaleta. The likes of Edwin van der Sar, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, and Thierry Henry suited up for the opponents.

Kompany himself was unfortunately sidelined for the match by a hamstring injury – a cruel homage to the rampant injury history of his long 11-year playing career at the Etihad. He picked up the injury while playing for his new club Anderlecht where he serves as player/manager. The club has started the Jupiler Pro League season on a terrible run of form, without victory through its first five games, but picked up its first win of the season against rivals Standard Liege with Kompany out injured.

Proceeds from the match went to benefit A Bed Every Night, a charity in Manchester dedicated to helping aid the homeless in the city.