Watch any vox pops from Full Time Devils, or any other Manchester United fan channels, and by far the most common post-match complaints are about the United board. On the pitch itself though, it is the midfield that generally comes in for the greatest length of stick – and for good reason.
It speaks volumes about the state of the 13-time Premier League champions when the most committed central midfielder has invariably been the comparatively inexperienced Scott McTominay. The remainder persist in their failure to hit the standards set by their exorbitant wage packets, with Paul Pogba and Fred notably as inconsistent under the current regime as they were during the Mourinho era.
The Best is Yet to Come
Pogba, in particular, has been less of a Red Devil and more of an Antichrist figure over the past year. However, the more forgiving of United fans will be looking to new signing Bruno Fernandes as the man who could finally bring out the best in the World Cup winner. In doing so, Fernandes would finally give United’s midfield the fear factor they currently boast only on paper.
Albeit without Pogba alongside him, such hopes were justified in the short-term by a solid performance from Fernandes on his Old Trafford debut. Despite Fernandes himself expressing dissatisfaction with his own debut performance, he rose to his primary objective well, and suppressed a Wolves midfield that continues to grow impressively under Nuno Espirito Santo. The numbers revealed in the aftermath certainly indicated a newfound sense of purpose amidst the United midfield:
Fernandes’ incisive passing in the final third, along with his team-high shots on-target both stood prominent. As a result of his determination to get forward, the infuriating advent of verbose sideways passing was also noticeably reduced.
The defensive contributions Fernandes offers will also certainly be a tangible asset in the coming months, with the price (as can be seen by those that check out spread betting football prices) surrounding United’s chances of a top-four finish set to fluctuate drastically.
The congested nature of the Premier League below the current podium potentially lends greater importance to goal difference. Even failing a top-four finish, United will certainly value a committed defensive midfielder in the Europa League knockout stage, as the away goal rule possibly becomes a major consideration.
Sporting Setup Priceless in Fernandes’ Development
For what it is worth in a league that has produced just one European champion since 1988, Fernandes focused on shot economy during his time in Sporting’s famous hoops, resisting the urge to fire until he was inside the box on around in one in every three occasions. Thus, while Fernandes’ vision and determination alone are unlikely to be the long-term solution in a far more uncompromising league, opposition defenders will certainly be given less time to think than they were during the worst days of Moyes, Van Gal and Mourinho.
If nothing else, a learnt emphasis on aggressive defending, as nurtured within Fernandes by Sporting’s high-pressure 4-3-3 formation, is certainly one element that should translate well into the Premier League.
Fernandes’ experience in switching between attacking and defensive mindsets can only boost United’s cause too. That would extend his impact to the wider midfield, and potentially benefit Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, both of whom have struggled to fulfil their potential under the current regime.
Until now, Lingard and Mata’s tendency to go infield from the wide areas during attacking phases has been largely redundant, due to the lack of delivery in the final third. Fernandes’ own additional abilities in the wider areas will enable United to exploit the space left by Lingard and/or Mata during said transition, giving either Martial, Rashford, James or even Pogba himself more time to pick the right spot.
In any case, the sight of more midfielders being given a license to shoot would be a refreshing throwback to the days of prime Paul Scholes:
Is Fernandes the Answer?
On the evidence of his home bow, Fernandes provides a more diverse range of options, both in terms of personnel and formation. Of course, it remains too early to tell whether Fernandes truly is the answer to United’s midfield woes, and it is true that the leap across from either of the Iberian top flights has been the undoing of even the finest athletes in years past.
Alone, Fernandes is a solution, but not the long-term answer United need. Nonetheless, he represents a considerable coup for United on early evidence, and a worthy nucleus to the midfield.