In a season of struggle for Manchester United, it’s becoming even more evident how important Bruno Fernandes is to Erik ten Hag’s side.
There’s a strong case to be made that he’s the club’s best acquisition in their post-Ferguson era. Since belatedly joining from Sporting in January 2020, the Portuguese maestro has gone on to register 56 assists and score 66 goals across 195 appearances for the record 20-time English champions.
However, despite his best efforts, the Red Devils only have one major piece of silverware to show for Fernandes’ level of productivity. Their best Premier League finish remains a runners-up placement in 2020/21, 12 points behind noisy neighbours Manchester City.
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Man United’s finishing woes costing Fernandes?
Even if Man Utd are falling short of expectations the same cannot be said of Fernandes who is living up to his end of the bargain. So far he’s created 27 ‘big chances’ in 2023, the most of any player across Europe’s big seven leagues, but he only has seven assists to his name. Of the top 10 ‘big chance’ creators, only Marcus Edwards has a lower ‘big chance’ created-to-assist ratio (0.26).
To provide further context, a ‘big chance” is defined by Opta as a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter. Penalties are always considered big chances.
As for the Premier League 2023/24 season so far, Fernandes has produced five big chances – only Salah, James Maddison and Kieran Trippier have more – but has only one assist. Fernandes even has the highest xA (3.1).
As a team, Manchester United’s ‘big chance’ conversion rate is 29%, the 14th highest in the Premier League.
What has often been cited is United lacking a premier number nine in the calibre of Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski or Erling Haaland with Marcus Rashford carrying the load earlier this year but truth be told he’s a level or two below those aforementioned names. Other attackers though have regularly misfired and the jury is still out on Rasmus Hojlund despite a promising start.
Lionel Messi left his mark
After nearly two decades of consistent brilliance Lionel Messi took his talents to South Beach this summer. Messi’s mere presence has turned Inter Miami’s fortunes around but even he couldn’t salvage their dire MLS season. Prior to undertaking his American adventure, the six-time Ballon d’Or recipient was producing the goods for Paris Saint-Germain. Even if some of their supporters weren’t enthralled, Messi as things currently stand finds himself 10th when it comes to big chances created across Europe’s top seven leagues in 2023.
Another talented creator who left one of Europe’s top seven leagues this summer was Dusan Tadic, who ended his five-year association with Ajax. Tadic sits third in the list Fernandes leads, with 19 big chances created and nine assists. If we add his efforts for Fenerbahce so far, only Kerem Aktürkoglu (15) and Mohamed Salah (12) have created more goals than him this year.
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Mohamed Salah: Europe’s reigning assist king?
It’s fair to say that, by his lofty standards, last season was among Mohamed Salah’s more subdued in a Liverpool jersey. But class is permanent, and Salah is proving this early into the 2023/24 campaign. Across Europe’s big seven leagues, no one has set up more goals than him (12 assists) from 19 big chances produced.
In fact, this is proving to be Salah’s most creative year in a Liverpool jersey. Prior to 2023, his best return when it comes to ‘big chances’ created was in 2021 and 2018, when he produced 17. In terms of assists, those figures were 11 and 12, respectively. This newfound relentless productivity in setting up goals could lie in the fact Salah’s role under Jurgen Klopp has somewhat changed in recent seasons. It looks as if he’s reinvented himself in a wider position since the Reds signed several centre-forward options, such as Diogo Jota, Cody Gakpo and Darwin Nunez.
In the race to be crowned 2023/24 Premier League assist king, or claim the Playmaker Award, only James Maddison (5), Kieran Trippier (5) and Pedro Neto (5) stand in his way. Salah’s four assists have come from nine big chances created, which is the most so far this Premier League season.
A wild Kieran Trippier appears
A quick glance at the above table and it’s curious to see Kieran Trippier’s name. But then you remember how lethal he was in terms of creating from Newcastle’s right-back position last term. Things began slowly this season but there’s no question Trippier is back up to speed. He’s already created five goals, which is just two fewer than last season. When it comes to producing ‘big chances’ from dead-ball situations the England full-back is in a class of his own. He’s created a combined 27 chances, with just under half (13) coming from set play. Only the Luton Town defender-cum-midfielder Alfie Doughty (with 14) beats Trippier in this metric.