Fan hype, highlight reels and a hefty price tag can put a heavy burden on any footballer, but Bruno Fernandes has enjoyed a convincing start to his Manchester United career.
Granted, the Portuguese ace has featured just twice for his new employers, but in no profession is judgment passed quicker than in football, and thus far, the ex-Sporting captain has acclimatised to Premier League grass like a duck to water.
In that regard, it would be amiss to not assess his recent showing against Chelsea; a proverbial six-pointer that will have huge implications on the race for Champions League football come the end of this present campaign.
Amid the obligatory VAR controversy, a heart-stopping injury to N’Golo Kante – if you’re a Chelsea fan that is – and Odion Ighalo nearly making himself an immediate cult hero at the death, Man Utd fans would have been buoyed by the elegant yet effective work of Fernandes in west London.
There were neat touches, slick transitions and jinks aplenty as the hosts bossed proceedings for large sections of this age-old encounter. But, in-between those moments of splendour, there was one particular aspect of Fernandes’ game that caught the eye: his set-piece deliveries.
Man Utd have historically possessed a rich lineage of deadball specialists, from David Beckham to Wayne Rooney, but under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer they’ve flattered to deceive from set-pieces. That, however, could be about to change…
Man Utd from set-pieces
Before we can put Fernandes under the microscope we must first establish just how good (or bad) Man Utd have been from set-pieces since Solskjaer pitched up at Old Trafford just over a year ago now.
This season Man Utd have created just 30 chances from set-pieces, only Crystal Palace (27), Tottenham Hotspur (23) and Watford (19) have fashioned less chances from deadball scenarios. In fact, Man Utd rank second-last for goal assists from set-pieces with just two, and one of those is Fernandes, whose precision cross was guided in by Harry Maguire against Chelsea on Monday night.
The other has come in the guise of Juan Mata, who has only made eight Premier League starts this season, while another of their so-called set-piece specialists in Ashley Young – who created the most chances in the above metric of any Man Utd player in the league last season (19) – has since departed for Inter Milan.
If Solskjaer‘s deadball dilemma has been exacerbated by the sale of Young, then it has been completely mitigated by the arrival of Fernandes, who could yet prove the perfect balm to his set-piece wound.
But, looking a little more closely at those numbers and Man Utd have only registered three goal assists from set-pieces since Solskjaer took over in December 2018. Of the four teams who rank lower than them, two have gone down – Huddersfield Town (two) and Fulham (one) – while Norwich (one) currently sit bottom of the table.
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On the reverse side of that coin, Liverpool have registered the most goal assists (20) since Solskjaer’s appointment, illustrating yet another string to their bow and proving that matches don’t always have to won with Hollywood passes and by walking the ball into the back of the net.
This will not be what Man Utd fans want to hear, yet more gushing over the league leaders, but there’s a reason Jurgen Klopp’s side are so formidable, and it’s not just because of their insatiable play in the attacking third.
Beat the first man
And so, we now turn our attention to the man who can bring a new dimension to Solskjaer’s game. A playmaker capable of zipping in consistently dangerous crosses that could add a new threat to Man Utd’s attack.
That Maguire only netted his first league goal for Man Utd earlier this week is telling, while Chelsea’s disallowed goal at the other end of the pitch only worked to further highlight the club’s vulnerabilities from set-pieces – Solskjaer’s side have won the fourth-least aerial duels of any club this season (408).
In Fernandes, however, they are getting a man who has already created 18 chances from set-pieces in the Portuguese Primeira Liga and the Premier League this season – remember Young topped the charts last campaign on 19 – and we still have a third of the season to play.
“Nine times out of ten he will deliver a good ball,” were the words of former Chelsea striker Tony Cascarino in his column for The Times following Fernandes’ sumptuous free-kick, which cannoned of the post, and his assist from a corner at Stamford Bridge.
During the previous meeting between these two sides in the League Cup earlier this season, Marcus Rashford stole the headlines with a bullet free-kick, but the England international may now find his positioning in the free-kick pecking order diminished following Fernandes’ arrival.
But, there is certainly more to this Portuguese phenom than meets the eye. Very rarely do marvels of such rare talent and exquisite skill possess the iron-nerve qualities of a leader. Creative types like Fernandes are so often mavericks of the game, mercurial magicians who often refuse to conform to stereotype and make the improbable normal.
However, Fernandes, for all his innate qualities with the ball in his orbit, appears to boast the characteristics of a team player rather than a solo artist; he did after all don the captain’s armband during his Sporting Lisbon days, while his current skipper, Maguire, has lavished praise on his shoulders in that particular regard.
“Obviously, Bruno helped with a nice delivery and hopefully there will be more to come between now and the end of the season,” he said. “You can see what Bruno makes, the quality on the ball that he brings, his technical ability and he’s a presence as well. He demands things off players, he’s a leader and he’s nice to have around the dressing room so long may that continue.”
Encouraging words. It may be that Man Utd are not only getting a set-piece virtuoso, but possibly a future captain. Early days, of course, but promising nonetheless.