For all the focus on Manchester United’s Portuguese star that didn’t start the game against Chelsea, more fascinating may be the Portuguese star that didn’t finish.
This was another recent big match where Bruno Fernandes was lacking, especially in any kind of accuracy.
Much was made during the week of his record of assists in the Champions League, but it stands out all the more because his statistics in the Premier League have so dropped off. Fernandes has gone from a rate of a goal every two games in domestic competition to none in his last nine, with just three assists in that spell.
It’s obviously not just about the figures, either, nor a perceived lack of connection with Cristiano Ronaldo.
The performance against Chelsea seemed to encapsulate everything about his game of late. Although he was admittedly out of his best position, he mostly made moves worse. Fernandes too often tried an overly ambitious ball when something more calculated was required. It regularly removed any sense of rhythm or craft from United’s play. One of his only memorable contributions, bar the clearance that led to Jorginho’s header, was a speculative shot from distance in the first half.
There were some exasperated looks from teammates. Fernandes isn’t slow to complain at others himself, of course. That and some of his more outlandish attempts weren’t a problem when he was producing.
It’s all a bit different when he is wasting attacks. That is one of the offsets of Fernandes’s game. He is so willing to try the speculative, it’s ultimately down to whether the return is worth it. There are many moments, though, when a bit more restraint is due. It is like he is permanently switched on to trying to seize the game.
They’re not so much Hollywood balls, as constant social media moments. Fernandes’s impact at United has mostly been so impressive that it would be unfair to overly criticise him.
It’s also likely that most of this is just a simple and inevitable drop in form, exacerbated by the wider slump under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but it’s simultaneously possible there’s a little more going on.
Fernandes’s initial form was probably overly exaggerated the other way, and just unsustainable. There was a long period when everything he tried seemed to come off. That was always going to wear off.
There’s also a basic wear and tear. Solskjaer used Fernandes as much as he could, and there were often comments around the club that it would lead to a bit of burn-out in terms of output.
Some around the Premier League have made other comments, though.
Fernandes was looked at by all of the “big six” but United were the only club who made the move, and that after some initial hesitation. “You can see why,” one well-placed source says. “And, with the way the Premier League works, you usually get one year before everyone figures you out.”
Whether that has actually happened will only be proven by what happens next – but what happens next could be something very different.
Fernandes will likely be in a completely different interpretation of his role. Ralf Rangnick’s idea of the game is at quite a remove from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s, and he won’t be going as withdrawn as in this match against Chelsea.
It actually makes some of the current debate about whether Fernandes should be dropped a little redundant.
The bigger question is how much of a Rangnick player the Portuguese can be. We know he is perfectly willing to press. There are no issues there. The United staff have often had to rein him in. The challenge will be to hone it, to ensure it’s coordinated.
Fernandes has mostly been used to performing as a free-roaming playmaker at United. That is set to change.
It could be timely, though, as he could suddenly do with a change in form.