In a tight and tense night of football, Manchester United beat Watford 1-0 in the FA Cup third round.
The scoreline seems close but The Red Devils had a semi-comfortable victory in the end, even though they never managed to make the game secure with a second goal. Their failure to get a second goal despite clocking up 18 shots didn’t really leave a good impression of a Manchester United side without Bruno Fernandes.
The Portuguese was one of the few first-teamers who saw no action at Old Trafford along with Paul Pogba, Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. And obviously his influence on the United side since his introduction is now legendary. All those goals and assists are obviously great but they almost obscure the fact that not only does Bruno Fernandes make United win, he makes them good.
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Without Fernandes, United have a collection of players who are obviously talented but lack any and all cohesion. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is obviously a skilled motivator (just look at the incredible performance he got out of Scott McTominay tonight by handing him the captain’s armband) but his ability to create a coherent attacking structure that doesn’t revolve around playing on the break remains unseen. His inability to forge such a structure has been covered for by the genius from Bruno Fernandes who so gels the United side.
So when Fernandes is absent, as he was tonight, there’s just nothing there and even reasonably organised defences are able to completely stifle United. Watford weren’t really troubled in open play by Manchester United until Marcus Rashford showed up and starting dribbling people for fun. Beyond that, it was only set-pieces which allowed United to threaten (and score the game-winner).
Alex Telles created six chances for Man Utd vs. Watford, including an assist for the opening goal.
Another creative outlet in Bruno's absence. pic.twitter.com/Kv7KhoWXSI
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 9, 2021
It’s a worrying trend for United because as good as Fernandes is, he can’t play every game. Paul Pogba is also not the same kind of player in terms of consistently driving the team forward even if he is a born match-winner.
Donny van de Beek was meant to be the ideal back-up to Bruno, a player steeped in collective football thanks to his background at Ajax. A player who can cover all three central midfield positions and should have allowed the club to rest their Portuguese playmaker more often.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has so minimised the Dutchman so far, barely giving him any minutes and instead restricting him to the occasional cup game or substitute appearance, that he has absolutely no rhythm and no cohesion with his team-mates.
So today when playing in midfield, van de Beek was ineffective for much of the game. He came to life briefly when pushed forward to play no. 10 for the last few minutes, but this only seemed so notable because the rest of the game had been so underwhelming.
All of Scott McTominay's last three goals for Man Utd have come in the opening five minutes of games.
On target early on again. ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/334OW03d2K
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 9, 2021
Really only one player shone: Scott McTominay. He looked good in an all-action capacity, but as a player who primarily thrives in defending it’s easier for him to play without structure. Others, especially creative types like van de Beek, need a bit more.
To be clear, van de Beek’s struggles are not signs of some sort of deficiency. Faking the entire attacking structure of a side isn’t easy, that Bruno Fernandes is able to do it so well and so consistently speaks to his incredible quality. He is one of the very best players in the league and Manchester United are lucky to have him because with him leading what is a genuinely talented squad, United could do almost anything.
They have to cultivate a back-up, though. Because otherwise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inability to create an attacking structure is going to cost United going forward. Better teams will learn to mark Bruno Fernandes out of games (one could argue RB Leipzig already did which is why United are back in the Europa League) and when that happens, the rest of the Red Devils need to find a way to play well without their talisman. On the evidence of tonight they have no idea how to play without Bruno, and that simply isn’t good enough for a club like Manchester United. They need to do better.