Can one player really change a football club’s style of football? Bruno Fernandes walked into Old Trafford just after Manchester United had been booed off during an insipid home defeat to Burnley in late January. Now United are unbeaten in 16 games, still in two cup competitions and challenging for a Champions League spot not to mention playing attractive football again.
Fernandes found a United side that were struggling to score. Since 1st January the Reds scored six goals in seven games with four coming in one game in a 4-0 win over Norwich. Ideas of Champions League football were a long way off with United treading water around 6th and way off the likes of Leicester never mind neighbours Manchester City and Liverpool.
Ole Gunner Solskjaer’s side were more than capable of beating a top 6 opponent but came up against a side who sat back and let United have the ball there were few players who were either capable enough or willing to play forward and break those teams down.
Too often the ball went sideways more than a crab does. With a midfield made up of defensive minded players in Matic, Fred and McTominay who could barely open the opposition up the forward line were starved of any sort of opportunity. Apart from a ball over the top for Rashford to run onto, United were pedestrian to say the least. Enter Bruno Fernandes.
Fast forward to July and United are pushing Leicester and Chelsea hard for a Champions League spot. Gone are the days of United struggling to open up the opposition and scoring one goal a game. Now the goals are flying in from all over the pitch with the front three of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood out scoring Liverpool’s front three. The midfield are chipping in with goals and assists specifically Fernandes who has continued his superb form at Lisbon onto Manchester.
Even Matic looks a different player setting off many a United attack with quick probing forward passes. Gone is the pedestrian walking football replaced by an instinctive thought to go forward as soon as the ball is won. United’s third goal scored at Brighton had all the hallmarks of United of old with a young Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez attacking on the counter after defending a corner at one end of the pitch. Finally Solskjaer’s United are a good watch these days.
The mentality change coincided with Fernandes’s arrival in late January. Whilst a side plays better football with better players, the sea change in attitude appears to come from Fernandes’s approach on the pitch. Always wanting to go forward, find gaps to run into always keeping the opposition thinking it can all be put down to the Portuguese midfielder.
Rewind to 1992, Sir Alex Ferguson’s United couldn’t hit a barn door. The usual strikeforce of Mark Hughes and Brian McClair were struggling to hit the net. Dion Dublin signed earlier in the season had suffered an horrific injury, Ferguson had failed to sign David Hurst from Sheffield Wednesday leaving all the goal scoring responsibility on Hughes and McClair. At one League Cup game at Villa Park in October, United fans sang “All we are saying is give us a goal” as the reds were dumped out 1-0. Enter Cantona.
Within a couple of weeks, Cantona had got United firing. Coming from 0-3 down at Hillsborough to draw 3-3, to scoring 5 past Coventry, 4 past Tottenham and 3 past QPR over the Christmas period United were finding goals easy to come by. Cantona was the final piece in the jigsaw, the glue that binds the side together whatever you call it, the Frenchman changed United’s mentality. Fast flowing attacking football and goals spread through the side, Cantona was rightly credited with changing the clubs fortunes and producing some edge of the seat football.
Reports surfaced of Fernandes fuming at his team mates after a 1-1 draw at Everton in early March unhappy at a lack of killer instinct from United to win the game. A winning mentality in the dressing room has been sadly missed in recent years. Too many players have unsettled the dressing room, yet in Fernandes United have a player who demands more of his teammates and drives them on to fulfil their potential.
Under Fernandes the fast counter attacking style has returned. Games are now dominated with a pressing style of football with the midfield winning the back ball sooner and the forwards are now linking up better. One touch football, flicks and goals flying in from all angles, Bruno has United purring more like a sports car rather than backfiring like an old Fiat Punto they were in January.