“Agent Bruno?” Bruno Fernandes wondered. Not content with scoring and assisting at a remarkable pace, encouraging a depressed club and reviving Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign at Manchester United, it turned out that he had replaced Jorge Mendes as the most influential Portuguese midfielder in football.
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Admittedly, Fernandes did not make the same claim for himself. He was one of those whose persuasive forces were called in to secure Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford. Agent Fergie, Agent Ole and Agent Rio all played their roles. But if the Norwegian can question whether he succeeded, then the man who lost his bill as the focal point of United’s attack could also be the top scorer and the indispensable starter.
There was something symbolic in the way Michael Carrick took over as deputy director and dropped Fernandes. Not only was he among United’s big names for poor performance, but he carried the pitcher. And if Fernandes’ response was impeccable when he came off the bench to inspire improvement against Villarreal, the assistant got Jadon Sancho’s late goal, pressing on his case for an immediate return to the team, but the way his season is resolved , has reflected Uniteds.
An extraordinary number of goal scorers has walked 1072 minutes without mustering one. There was the brief, intoxicating feeling that a galaxy of attacking stars would be unstoppable when Fernandes scored and Ronaldo got two in the latter’s second debut against Newcastle. But then came his astonishingly bad, fucking penalties against Aston Villa, his flirtation with a red card against Liverpool, the false dawn of a decent performance in a 3-4-1-2 formation at Tottenham and finally the unfortunate end at Watford , with Fernandes gesturing to the fans and bumping Solskjær that the players were guilty.
The headline on Fernandes ‘longest United goal drought could camouflage the way some aspects of United players’ numbers have held up, even as the team’s form collapsed. Driven by his Champions League achievements, Ronaldo’s goalscoring record is completely respectable. Fernandes has eight assists since he last scored. See a highlight package with two exquisite pieces of creativity for Ronaldo goals, a diagonal pass against Young Boys of Bern and a backheel against Atalanta, and the temptation would be to assume that they combined brilliantly.
The broader evidence may be that each one is often bothered by the other’s presence. One reason for Fernandes’ relatively sparse goal return for Portugal – six in 40 internationals, compared to a ratio approaching one every other game for Sporting Lisbon and United – is that Ronaldo is on the spot. Another is that he is a No. 10 specialist who feels a far inferior player in any other role. Portugal have generally played 4-3-3 in recent years. Real Madrid did the same in Ronaldo’s last seasons there and Juventus in large parts of Ronaldo’s two Serie A winning campaigns. He likes to have more workers behind him instead of company next to him.
In all likelihood, his ideal Portuguese team would have two Bernardo Silvas who provided the buzz and creativity of the No. 8 roles, rather than Fernandes as No. 10. The latter, in turn, also prefer runners around him; rewind four months back and it looked like Solskjærs ideal United attack could get Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho to flank Fernandes with Mason Greenwood in front of him, everything goes through him. Although Fernandes showed a different aspect of his game, running in behind defense in his opening day treble against Leeds, it was in a side built around him.
If there is a way to prioritize both Ronaldo and Fernandes without hampering them, Solskjær did not find it. Fernandes does not want a static center striker or Ronaldo a No. 10 who gets in his way. Twin shotaholics can both regret the number of bets the other takes, and now Fernandes has not had a bet on goals in the Premier League since September’s win at West Ham. Part of his first success at Old Trafford stemmed from his desire to become the central figure, to take responsibility. He looks a minor player when he is referred to a member of the support group.
Which in part may explain why the number of elite clubs that scouted him in Sporting did not move. Another factor may be tactical. Very few teams base their game plan around a pure No. 10 more; in a time of 4-3-3 and 3-4-3, they feel like an endangered species, a return to the 2000s.
When Fernandes was dropped on Tuesday, it was to accommodate the more versatile Donny van de Beek, who without playing lead roles filled various roles as United played a hybrid 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. As United seem to get closer to Ralf Rangnick in their search for both a temporary and a permanent manager, the trends in modern management thinking make it less likely that their chosen appointment will share Solskjær’s preference for 4-2-3-1 (with variants of 4-diamond-2 and 3-4-1-2, all involving a No. 10). It made Fernandes a unique figure, just as his productivity made him a deviant.
But now, as Carrick’s bow indicates, it’s uncertain times for the Solskjær regime’s biggest United player.
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