The winning Manchester United sides of the 1990s and first part of this century all had an established, dominant attacking midfielder with a spark of creativity and an eye for goal. Paul Scholes, Eric Cantona and even Wayne Rooney, later in his career, can all be considered in that bracket of lynchpins. Now, after seven years of thrashing about in the post-Alex Ferguson era, there finally seems to be an addition to that list in Bruno Fernandes.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Portugese midfielder has almost single-handedly resuscitated the Red Devils’ season after joining from Sporting Lisbon — the same club Cristiano Ronaldo joined them from in 2003 — for £47-million. The start he has made to his life in Manchester has put the Red Devils in serious contention for a top-four spot in the English Premier League. He has been rewarded for his rapid start with the Professional Footballers’ Association player of the month for February, surely the first of many accolades to follow.
As well as the three goals and three assists Fernandes has managed in his first eight games, his ability to link defence and attack has been the solution United have been yearning for all season as they struggled to convert possession into goals due to a lack of creativity.
Fernandes has also shown inventiveness to be a difference maker in crucial moments, especially when the opposition have believed they had him sewn up. It was evident in the Manchester derby on Sunday: he was a peripheral figure for much of the first half, until he dinked a quick free kick over the top for Anthony Martial to give United the lead. His craftiness has certainly brought a lift to Martial’s game, who has now netted in three of his last four Premier League games. The habitually pensive Martial was all smiles as he took his seat in the stands next to the new incumbent king of Old Trafford, the stands booming out “Bruno! Bruno!”.
Martial’s is not the only form to have improved since the Portugese playmaker’s arrival. The confidence up top seems to have also translated to the backline, as United have now kept eight clean sheets in their 10-game unbeaten run.
Fernandes finally seems to be the player who is going to grab responsibility as United’s main man. Before him, too many have proven to be a mirage of that talisman so dearly needed by the faithful. Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Ángel Di María and Alexis Sanchez were all bought for the same reason as Fernandes. But their hype fell quicker than the stock markets did this week.
Paul Pogba’s transfer in 2016 probably carried with it the greatest promise of change. The Frenchman was pushed as the star who would get United back on par with Europe’s mightiest. He had the look for it, the ability and the touch of arrogance most top players display. The boardroom and coaching staff were also quick to identify Nemanja Matić as an ideal partner for Pogba, a holding midfielder who would create the space for the superstar to run free and weave his magic further up the field.
However, that promise has not materialised in almost four years. Although Pogba’s statistics show 30 goals and 31 assists in 143 appearances for the Red Devils, the club and player have yet to establish an understanding. One might have thought it was just another José Mourinho feud last season, but even after Ole Gunnar Solskjær had lifted morale at the club, the new coach has also struggled to come to grips with Pogba’s attitude.
But with the effect Fernandes has had since joining, the Manchester Evening News reported that Pogba is training overtime to get back into action. Perhaps the influence of Fernandes has sparked a United U-turn for the French World Cup winner? Or maybe he just wants to be ready for a new suitor come the summer.
Whether Pogba is there next season, the arrival of Fernandes has given us a glimpse of the old United, the one that would either blow opponents away or make you hold your breath throughout the entire 90 minutes. Surely, this time, the promise of a superstar to lead the team to new glories is real.