“Bruno, Bruno, Bruno,” came the chant from the Manchester United fans in the stands. The game had not even begun but the mere mention of their new signing’s name from the stadium announcer was enough to get the crowd going. All eyes were on Bruno Fernandes at Old Trafford.
The 25-year-old had only taken part in one training session with his new team-mates following his £68m arrival from Sporting Lisbon on Thursday. But it is a testament to how much this Manchester United side needs him that he went straight into the starting line-up against Wolves.
“We’ve heard a lot about his assists and his goals and how he can affect games at the front of the pitch, but when he was moved into more of a holding midfield role, I thought he adapted well and showed a lot of experience and discipline,” said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville.
It is perhaps no surprise that he ended in that area of the pitch given how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had likened him to Paul Scholes in the build-up to the game, and in addition to his experience and discipline, there were certainly moments when his passing ability stood out.
From his deeper-lying role, one of Fernandes’ primary responsibilities was to provide service for Mata, who had moved from the right flank to the centre of the pitch. He excelled at it, intelligently seeking out gaps in the Wolves midfield to pick out the Spaniard in space between the lines and send his side forward on the attack.
“It suited Fernandes when he had Mata in the No 10 position in front of him,” said Jamie Redknapp in the Sky Sports studio afterwards. “When he could see things in front of him and start to pick his passes, it worked a lot better for Manchester United.”
On some occasions, Fernandes was in fact their deepest-lying midfielder. It enabled him to orchestrate attacks and rack up more passes in the opposition half than any other player. His success rate was relatively low at under 80 per cent, but that was only because of his preference for taking risks rather than playing it safe.
Bruno Fernandes’s performance in stats
- 111 touches
- 88 passes
- 70 passes in opp. half
- 78% pass success
- 11.3km covered
- Five shots
United have lacked that kind of forward-thinking ambition on the ball in the absence of Paul Pogba, and his distribution was not all Fernandes offered. Solskjaer had told him to be himself, and that could be seen in his willingness to test the goalkeeper at every opportunity.
In fact, Fernandes had more shots than any other player on the pitch. His first effort was dragged wide from outside the box, but he made a better connection from a similar area shortly afterwards, drilling a powerful strike into the palms of Rui Patricio. In the second half, he showed fine technique when he forced another save from a free-kick.
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There was evidence of impressive defensive diligence too. Fernandes covered 11.3km, second only to Fred among Manchester United players, and did not shy away from challenges, flying aggressively into a 50-50 with his international team-mate Joao Moutinho as early as the 13th minute and earning a booking for foul on Raul Jimenez after the break.
Solskjaer will be encouraged by how Fernandes embraced the physical side of the game on his first Premier League appearance. He will be pleased by the ease with which he adapted to his new surroundings and how he influenced proceedings with the ball at his feet.
The problem, of course, is that Manchester United’s problems further forward were as glaringly apparent as ever. Martial toiled again in the central striking role, failing to even register a shot, while James endured a difficult evening too. Their struggles were far from ideal for Fernandes.