Bruno Fernandes changed everything. Manchester United’s need for a creative midfielder had been obvious, but few could have predicted the instant impact the Portuguese international would have on the Premier League after his January arrival from Sporting CP.
Not since Virgil van Dijk had a single signing changed the fortunes of a Premier League team so dramatically, with United going 14 games unbeaten to finish the season. Solskjaer’s side were slumped sixth in the table at the time of Fernandes’ £47 million move. By the close of the campaign, they were third.
Fernandes scored eight and assisted seven over this run in the Premier League, driving his new team to top-four salvation. Without the 26-year-old, United wouldn’t be in the Champions League this season and Solskjaer would have lost his job.
It was therefore understandable the Norwegian built his team around Fernandes heading into the 2020/21 campaign. The Portuguese isn’t just the dynamo through which Manchester United’s attacking play flows, but an on-field leader in the way Solskjaer is otherwise lacking. Fernandes doesn’t shy away from telling teammates what he thinks - just ask Victor Lindelof.
Donny van de Beek is yet to start a Premier League game for Man Utd
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Solskjaer owes Fernandes a lot, but his allegiance to the midfielder is becoming a blind spot. This season, Fernandes hasn’t been able to replicate the form of the second half of last season, with the Portuguese now contributing to Manchester United’s problems rather than representing the solution to them. And yet Solskjaer continues to pick him.
Last season, Solskjaer had no choice but to play Fernandes in every match such was the lack of midfield options. This is no longer the case, though. Donny van de Beek was signed over the summer to give United depth through the centre of the pitch. To ease Solskjaer’s dependence on Paul Pogba and more specifically Fernandes.
Van de Beek made his first Manchester United start in the 5-0 win over RB Leipzig and kept his place for the next Champions League fixture, a 2-1 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir on Wednesday night. Fernandes started alongside the Dutchman in Turkey and struggled, giving the ball away cheaply and adding to his side’s defensive problems. Fernandes conceded possession an astonishing 17 times in the first half alone.
When the time came for Solskjaer to make changes, though, it was Van de Beek, and not Fernandes, who was withdrawn. The former had been far more efficient in possession, giving United the sort of passing angles and off-the-ball movement they needed to break down Basaksehir. Solskjaer, however, didn’t see this.
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Fernandes played the full 90 minutes, as he has in the majority of the games he has played so far this season, and fared no better after the substitution of Van de Beek. Weary and jaded, the Portuguese was ragged in everything he did, either doing too much on his own or doing too little.
This isn’t to say Fernandes has all of a sudden become a bad player. He remains one of the most naturally talented attacking midfielders in the Premier League. His character has recently been called into question after reports of a dressing room rift following the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, but Fernandes gives the impression of being a natural born winner. His frustration comes from the steadfast belief United should be capable of better.
He too is capable of better, but Solskjaer is denying Fernandes the chance to rediscover his best form by demanding so much of him. The Portuguese got Manchester United out of a hole last season, but with the Reds once again deep in the dirt Fernandes can’t stop digging. Solskjaer, at least for the time being, should have taken the shovel out of his hand by now.