As 2020 winds to a close, we can look back at the year that’s just gone and seen a year of Premier League action dominated by great individuals.
There have been some sensational talents on display in England’s top flight, strikers, defenders, midfielders. Kevin De Bruyne won PFA men’s player of the year while Jordan Henderson was the FWA footballer of the year.
Liverpool won the title thanks in part to 19 and 18 goals from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, respectively, Arsenal won the FA Cup thanks to miracle displays from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (two goals in the semi, two goals in the final).
But which of all of these great players was the best?
- Age: 26
- Club: Manchester United
- Position: Attacking midfield
- Football Index value: £6.70 (Sell) – £7.14 (Buy)
- 2020 Premier League stats: | Goals: 18 (second-highest in the league) | Assists: 13 (second-highest) | Chances created: 74 (third-highest) | Big chances created: 13 (joint-fourth-highest) | Through balls completed: 10 (highest)
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Well, how should you measure attacking greatness? The simplest way is by looking at goals and assists combined. Direct goal involvements.
There are flaws to this logic. Not all assists are equal, and many would question the wisdom of including penalty goals when assessing the quality of a player’s attacking output. But after all, impacting the scoresheet is the surest way to actually impact the flow and result of a match. It’s why forwards and goalscorers usually dominate “best of” lists and why upon the now-ubiquitous list of names of the greatest players of all time only one consistently played as a defender (Franz Beckenbauer).
So who has been dominating goal involvements?
Well, for the whole of 2020 with one game yet to be played, it’s Mohamed Salah, who has 32 direct goal involvements (23 goals, nine assists). Coming in second just behind the Egyptian with 31 goal involvements, however, is Bruno Fernandes, albeit with eight penalties (of which he won two). Even so, the Portuguese being up there is doubly impressive for two reasons.
The first reason is that Fernandes joined almost a month into 2020, and has thus played four fewer league games than Salah and almost 350 fewer minutes. So if we adjusted the comparison to reflect per-90-minute averages, what we see is that Fernandes has 1.2 direct goal involvements per 90 minutes played in the Premier League, while Salah averages 1.07.
Obviously both are majestic players, but what gives Fernandes the edge is not just the per-90 production, but how much he has dominated the division since he entered it. After all since he joined Manchester United (on the 29th January, 2020) there is no one who can touch him for direct goal involvements in the Premier League.
Bruno Fernandes for Man Utd in the Premier League this season:
◉ Most passes into the box (116)
◉ Most chances created (44)
◉ Most through balls (7)
◎ Most possession lost (291)
Ole Gunnar Solskjær knows Bruno's risk are worth taking. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/5u8znLborS
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 26, 2020
Salah drops from 32 to 29 (21 goals, 8 assists) which means that Fernandes, with 31, stands alone; only Salah has more goals than his 18, and no one has more assists than his 13. To widen the data pool somewhat, the Portuguese created 74 chances and 13 ‘big chances’, as defined by Opta (both third in the division, behind only Kevin De Bruyne and Captain Jack Grealish), and took 87 shots (second in the division).
His total of 31 goals and assists combined since his United debut places Fernandes third among all players in Europe’s top five leagues in the same span. He’s one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and three behind Lionel Messi on 34, with Robert Lewandowski leading the way on 35.
That trio were the top three as voted for in The Best awards of 2020, and they each represent a different division in Europe. Fernandes stands shoulder to shoulder with the very biggest attacking names in the sport right now and that is one of the reasons why he can be considered the Premier League’s best player of 2020. However, the other, bigger reason simultaneously explains why his output didn’t see him place near the top in The Best awards.
Because Manchester United simply aren’t on the same level as Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Literally, in that Fernandes spent the first half of 2020 in the Europa League while both those sides and their star men were Champions League winners. And Fernandes will start 2021 back in the Europa League with United. And unlike those other players, Fernandes didn’t win or challenge for a league title.
Yet they are coming close to re-establishing themselves as a continuous Champions League side and may even manage to mount a title challenge in the Premier League. That may seem normal given that, y’know, they are Manchester United. But it’s easy to forget that just one year ago, Manchester United were nowhere near being Manchester United.
Sure they could trouble big sides on the break, but that was it. In fact in their last pre-Fernandes league game, they lost at home to Burnley. And before Fernandes’ first league game they had 34 points and were in fifth, six points behind fourth-place Chelsea and 12 points behind third-place Leicester, who had 48.
By the end of the season? United had 66 points and finished third, level on points with Chelsea (but having doubled the Blues’ goal difference) and were four points ahead of Leicester, having beaten The Foxes on the final day to secure their Champions League spot.
That dramatic turnaround owed oh so much to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese hasn’t just been racking up goals and assists for a bad team. He literally made Manchester United a good team again. He lifted the Red Devils up off the floor and almost single-handedly returned the joy, swagger and confidence to the side.
Paul Pogba looks happy again, Anthony Martial found some form, Mason Greenwood saw his production explode, and it all coincided with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. It was like someone flipped a switch. If you didn’t see it happen before your eyes, you wouldn’t believe it.
Fernandes had the kind of impact on the club that hasn’t been seen since Eric Cantona. Yes, obviously Robin van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived with furious debut seasons, but the Dutchman simply added his goalscoring presence to a side lacking exactly that. And the Swede drove United forward mentally without really impacting the style.
Bruno Fernandes is adding goals and assists. He is driving United forward mentally and he’s helping the Red Devils beat teams in real style. He’s influencing play, helping others raise their own level of performance to new heights and that, in turn, is making Manchester United good. Really good, in fact. Since Fernandes’ debut, only Liverpool have won more points than United; they’re a relevant side again.
Despite a squad riddled with flaws that didn’t address any of their three key weaknesses in the summer (left centre-back, defensive midfield and right-winger), and after a frankly disastrous start at home, United have driven up the table and are just five points behind defending champions Liverpool with a game in hand. They’re a side to be taken seriously again.
And they have climbed up that table because of the level Fernandes has lifted them to. A level that sees a draw against Leicester as a disappointment. “I was really happy when I got in the dressing room and I saw everyone disappointed and saying the things we had to do better,” Fernandes said to MUTV after the match. “You are creating a winning mentality and we are not happy with this point.”
Returning a winning mentality like that to United, a mentality they haven’t had since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, and lifting the whole club back up to relevance, true relevance, for the first time in seven years is exactly why Bruno Fernandes, the Iberian Atlas, has been the best Premier League player in 2020.