Football Features

The Manchester derby 2020: Can Bruno Fernandes help United get their stadium back?

By Muhammad Butt

Man Utd v Man City Premier League preview and predictions

Published: 20:01, 7 March 2020

Some contend that Manchester is still red. But while the sheer volume of support still enjoyed by one side of the divide means that is up for debate (even if City have dominated the decade), what is more certain is that Old Trafford is blue.

Manchester United have not won a Premier League game against City at Old Trafford since April 2015 when Louis van Gaal’s Red Devils came from 0-1 down to powderise their opponents 4-2. In fact, when you look at the whole previous decade it doesn’t make good reading for United.

Since the famous 4-3 thriller in September 2009, there have been nine Manchester derbies at Old Trafford in the Premier League. City have won six, United two, and there’s been one draw. The aggregate score is 10-20 to City. Whether it’s Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola, Sheikh Mansour’s boys run Old Trafford.

Even if United can take pride from their recent Etihad record (two wins out of their three visits in all competitions), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be desperate to address this worrying trend when the two sides meet this Sunday. But looking forward, United will want to redress the balance of the tie over more than just one season. After all, if you’re gonna be lord of the league then first you gotta be lord of your yard.

But how exactly can United do this? Obviously their short-term gameplan will probably be to give it to Bruno Fernandes and pray. The new signing has the skill, athletic ability and mentality to be a dominant creator, largely because he is fearless with the ball at his feet. So many players, especially at Old Trafford, find themselves paralysed by fear when they have the ball in the final third that United possession has otherwise become an endless sequence of people passing the buck, not wanting to take decisive action.

Fernandes has no such qualms. Since he made his debut in the Premier League, only Trent Alexander-Arnold has played more passes into the box (69) than Fernandes’ 44. He’s even ahead of the Premier League’s arch-creator, Kevin de Bruyne (41).

“The fourth piece of the puzzle”

Of course, being such a “risk-taker”, in Solskjaer’s own words, means Fernandes also surrenders the ball a lot. In fact, on average he loses possession just under 24 times per 90 minutes played in the Premier League so far. But, considering his skill-set and the fact he’s now United’s primary set-piece taker, the reality is it comes with the territory.

Last season the competition-wide accuracy average for crosses and corners combined in the Premier League was 23.5% while just under 4% of corners resulted in goals. So despite the negative connotations attached to Opta’s ‘possession lost’ metric, it’s often a symptom of having the courage to take risks. Or else part and parcel of being on corners and set-pieces for a side that wins lots of corners and set-pieces.

For context, Alexander-Arnold loses it 26.25 times per 90 minutes played and De Bruyne does so 22.65 times (these numbers date back to the start of 2016/17 and don’t include ‘clearances’).

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Solskjaer said in an interview with Sky Sports that to do what Fernandes does “you need courage. You need to be a risk-taker at Manchester United. The fans demand it, the club demands it, it is what we’ve been brought up on with Sir Alex.”

But when he talks about what Old Trafford “demands”, Solskjaer is only telling half the story, because this quasi-scattershot approach to risk vs reward will inevitably lead to frustration when the latter outweighs the former. Any exasperation with Paul Pogba among United fans does largely stem from the fact his attempts to inject creativity into proceedings are sometimes mistaken for a self-absorbed desire to play too many fancy passes or take too many absurd shots.

Liverpool fans tend not to get riled up by Alexander-Arnold losing the ball and City supporters care far less about De Bruyne’s turnovers. Why? Well, besides the obvious fact those teams regularly appease supporters by winning both games and silverware, they also have systems to compensate.

I’ve always enjoyed right-back as there is a lot more freedom going forward. It’s a lot more chaotic in the middle. I probably get more of the ball now than I did when I was in midfield. It’s just about trying to influence the game as much as possible from out there. – Trent Alexander-Arnold, in a recent BBC Q&A

In Liverpool’s case, Alexander-Arnold’s “freedom going forward” is balanced out by workman-like midfield who retain possession well. That’s less relevant for United, given the amount of money they’ve poured into their midfield, which brings us back to Sunday’s opponents. So how do Manchester City and De Bruyne do it?

Man Utd’s recent transfer outlay on midfielders:

  • Fernandes: £62m (from Sporting, 2020)
  • Fred: £47m (from Shakhtar Donetsk, 2018)
  • Nemanja Matic: £40m (from Chelsea, 2017)
  • Paul Pogba: £89m (from Juventus, 2016)
  • Juan Mata: £37m (from Chelsea, 2014)
  • Total: £275m

City don’t scrimp on playmakers to indulge Kevin De Beckham’s dedication to the cross. It’s just they function with other midfielders who are not only outstandingly creative but also more responsible with possession.

Of every active Premier League player to have created at least 2.0 chances per 90 minutes since the start of 2016/17, Bernardo Silva has the second-lowest per-90-minute average in terms of losing possession (13.28); Phil Foden is next with 13.38; David Silva is a bit further down the list but, even with his 2.54 chances created, he only concedes possession 14.93 times per 90 minutes. Worth noting is that set-pieces will skew these numbers a bit, but not enough to totally account for the gap (De Bruyne averages 1.9 failed crosses into the box per 90 minutes since 2016/17).

So to both build around Fernandes and get closer to City’s attacking output, United could do with one or two conservative creators of Silva’s stripe to (borrowing Solskajer’s analogy) complete the “jigsaw”.

In Juan Mata they have one such puzzle piece. The Spaniard is actually the sole player on the aforementioned list of Premier League creators with a lower per-90-minute average than Bernardo Silva in terms of giving away possession. And much like City’s two Silvas, he is an incredibly sure and steady player on the ball who has the capacity for moments of great expansive play (2.32 chances created per 90).

Plus, pairing Fernandes and Mata could be a short-term key to victory against City on Sunday, given the Spaniard has two game-winning goals against Manchester City (both at Old Trafford as it turns out; one in the aforementioned 4-2 and another in a 1-0 EFL Cup triumph). So if Manchester United want their stadium back, Mata has the track record to suggest he can help them do it.

Man Utd v Man City preview and predictions

Long-term, however, United will want to sign a different option. The Spaniard is about to turn 32 and is already struggling to perform well week in, week out.

And so it’s no surprise the player who reportedly tops their transfer wishlist is ‘captain’ Jack Grealish. As a homegrown player, the Aston Villa winger already ticks one box for United. He’s also a possession magnet who buys fouls like no one else in the division (his total of 122 is the most this season), whose maintained an 85% pass accuracy while creating the second-most chances from open play (57) in the English top flight. Consider that Grealish is essentially a one-man attack for Villa and these figures become almost as impressive as his calves. No wonder Guardiola name-drops him instantly when talking about Villa.

Grealish is an ideal candidate to partner Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United, the kind of “safe” playmaker who will allow the Portuguese to continue to push the boundaries and lead United’s attack back to the levels they want to occupy.

First, they need to reclaim the stadium, but if Grealish arrives in the summer and is supported by other impressive signings to build around Fernandes, then for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson, United could make a genuine attempt to – at long, long last – reclaim the Premier League.


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