Football Features

Why Bruno Fernandes is the perfect Paul Pogba replacement for ‘Solskjaerball’

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:48, 25 June 2019

Manchester United are working away in the transfer market, trying to sign various players including Bruno Fernandes.

Under Ed Woodward, it seems as though United are only capable of working on one deal at a time. They’ve already secured Daniel James from Swansea and reports are that they’re currently focused on Crystal Palace right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

That has pushed Fernandes to the backburner for now, and while right-back and centre-back may seem like far more pressing needs for the Red Devils, midfield is a huge area of need for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men.

Look at the options he has to work with: Paul Pogba is a world-class talent for sure, but he’s inconsistent and might well be on his way out of the club this summer. Nemanja Matic is the husk of a once-impactful midfielder ghosting around the pitching haunting United fans. Fred is a player of immense quality who has had his confidence shattered by previous management (though he can obviously recover). Scott McTominay is a promising if limited young bruiser, and Andreas Pereira takes nice free-kicks.

That’s it. Five midfielders, one of whom is functionally useless, another with severe confidence issues. So that’s three working midfielders, one of whom might leave and the other two just aren’t all that great thus far.

United need midfielders, and bad.

And it’s not just that they need bodies; they have bodies, they need quality. The kind of quality that fits Solskjaer’s style of play: fast and vertical. Possession and technique is important, but speed and dynamism is the key. James and Wan-Bissaka point to what kind of team Solskjaer is looking to build at Old Trafford, and Fernandes fits that profile too.

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Fernandes is 24, so far from a young prospect, he’s now entering his prime years where you’d expect him to be at his best. And fittingly that has coincided with an absolute explosion in his production levels. In 2017/18, Fernandes scored 16 goals in 56 games. That’s impressive for a midfielder; Pogba bagged 16 this season and it was his best-ever total.

But this season Fernandes took his game to a whole new level. He scored 19 goals in the Primeira Liga and an astonishing 31 in all competitions. Alright, he took penalties, but that is utterly ridiculous for a midfielder in any league.

Watching him play, it’s obvious why Fernandes can reach such totals. The way he runs off the ball, timing his movement to avoid detection from defensive midfielders but arriving too late for the centre-backs to pick up him, allows him to constantly be in goalscoring positions to meet crosses. He’s like a Portuguese Frank Lampard but with a greater sense of speed and skill.

Of course the other thing that allows Fernandes to be so dominant is his shot count. He unleashed 120 shots last season in Portugal, more than any other player in both Portugal and England.

Manchester United as a whole rattled off 396 shots in the Premier League that season, meaning Fernandes by himself had about 25% of the United total. By himself.

74 of his 120 shots in the league came from outside the box. That’s an enormous number, and sure, it’s a low margin of those long-range efforts that actually go in (Fernandes managed 3/74 for a shot conversion of just 4%) but they mean that his team is always one shot away from scoring, and that effects how opponents defend teams as a whole.

Anyone who watched Portugal’s Nations League victory over the Netherlands will know just how effective Fernandes’ range of shooting is even if he doesn’t score.

In that game he peppered Jasper Cillessen from range and thus whenever Portugal had the ball the sense of danger was palpable, so the Dutch defenders were acutely aware of needing to close him down, and this opened space for others to exploit.

Consider how such a player would slot right into the Manchester United midfield, especially if Pogba departs as is expected. The Frenchman is a superior player to Fernandes with a much more wide-ranging skill-set, so Fernandes could never truly replace Pogba in the traditional sense.

However, he could replace Pogba’s goalscoring and thus become part of a more cohesive and balanced Manchester United midfield capable of running the gauntlet against any and all opponent.

Even with pressing needs in defence, The Red Devils must stay focused on the middle of the pitch because with Fernandes as a goalscoring tip of Solskjaer’s spear, Manchester United’s midfield would become a deadly weapon once again.

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