Why 2020 is the year of Bruno Fernandes
Following the visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers visit to Old Trafford on the opening day of February this year, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faced his post-match press inquisition without a raft of positives to discuss.
But, while left to lament a missed opportunity to pick up maximum points ahead of our first-ever winter break in the Premier League, Solskjaer was nevertheless able to cast an eye towards the future after an influential display by his debutant: Bruno Fernandes.
Without overstatement or hyperbole, the Norwegian merely assured all parties: “You can see he’s a top player. He’s going to be a top addition.”
Less than 11 months on, Solskjaer’s words have proven more prophetic than anybody could have imagined. The Portuguese playmaker has already made a case for being the most transformative signing of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, with personal awards and accolades flooding in almost as steadily as his stream of goals and assists, while the Reds’ collective fortunes have also picked up dramatically.
Ahead of this month’s Manchester derby at Old Trafford, former club captain and renowned standard-bearer Roy Keane underlined the standing Fernandes has attained in less than a year. “He’s without doubt the most important player at Man United at this moment in time,” Keane told Sky Sports.
“All the stats since he’s come to the club – goals, assists – and he has good leadership qualities, a good attitude, and he comes across well in interviews. He’s obviously come to Man United to win football matches. He’s been brilliant. He keeps producing.”
The signs were there early on. After his promising bow against Wolves, Bruno went straight into the travelling party for United’s winter break and returned with an assist for Harry Maguire in February’s vital Premier League win at Chelsea. Before the month was out, he had converted penalties against Watford and Club Brugge, the latter display – in just his fifth appearance – prompting legendary Reds midfielder Paul Scholes to say:
“I like everything [about him] so far. His creativity, his awareness on the pitch... before the ball comes he knows what’s happening. More often than not he makes the right pass. He’s sensational. He’s got goals in him, too, and you just wonder why nobody else came in for him or why we didn’t get him in the summer. He looks a special talent; he looks like he can be a hero with the fans as well. You look at Cantona, Rooney... people who are idolised by the fans. You hope that in the future he can become a player just as good as them. Sometimes it can take one player to make a team click and he looks like that player.”
With a bumper haul of assists augmenting his own goals, Fernandes also had the more intangible impact of raising standards around him, setting an example with his all-action, animated displays in which his will to win and intolerance of anything but the best was plain for all to see. It was little surprise, then, that the Portuguese was named Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year for 2019/20, despite spending August through to January playing elsewhere.
“I’ve been [a player] in a team and I like a team where it is not just the manager or the coaches who shout,” smiled Solskjaer. “I want players to take responsibility and put other players into their place at times when that is necessary because they’re out there fighting for one cause, and that is for the team to win. I think once in a while you just have to take a rollocking. Not that Bruno is just giving out rollockings, he is also instructing, and I think we can all learn from his mentality and mindset. If it is 2-0, he wants 3-0. If it is 4-0, he wants 5-0. He always wants to improve and for the team to improve.”
“Then I got rid of all these cards – bang, bang, bang – and I won that game. I needed to win because I was so angry that she put me twice +4... she made me pick up all these cards! She’s three years old. My wife was looking at me and said: ‘You are always the same.’
“At Christmas in Portugal we always play bingo. We play five pence per card and we put all the money in the box and who completes the card wins all the money. It’s not for a lot of money, it’s just for fun but, even in that, I don’t like to lose. I have to call the numbers out, and I always check the numbers to be sure. I have to do this because all the time, my family are cheating during this! My uncles, my cousins, everyone! So if you grow up with this, you do what you have to do!
Speaking of his football, he said: “I have a family who have always judged my games. All the time you know you have people behind you who will always ask more and demand more from you. Every player has that friend who just says: ‘You played really well, you lost because your team-mates didn’t score that goal,’ and so on. Everyone has that friend, so you need to have that kind of person like my wife, my brother, my dad, my friend, who will say: ‘Hey, it wasn’t your team-mates’ fault you didn’t win... it was your fault. You didn’t win because you didn’t play well’.”
Accountability and responsibility come naturally to a player who left behind the captain’s armband at Sporting Lisbon, but quickly donned it when Harry Maguire sat out the Reds’ trip to Paris Saint-Germain in October. When handed the chance to re-take a penalty illegally saved by Keylor Navas, the stand-in captain stroked home his finish in the same position as his first attempt, calmly outwitting the vexed Costa Rican.
A month earlier, stood in the unprecedented situation of lining up a 100th-minute, VAR-awarded penalty at Brighton after the final whistle had sounded and been overturned, Bruno’s response was to smash his finish high into the corner of the goal. His take on risk-averse is to merely ensure that failure is not an option.
December’s win at Sheffield United was a rare occasion in 2020/21 when Bruno neither scored nor assisted in a game. His first 19 outings of the campaign yielded 17 direct goal involvements – 11 goals and six assists – prompting yet more individual acclaim when he won the Premier League Player of the Month award for November. Only 12 players in the division’s history can boast more, with Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney, for instance, notching four and five apiece during stellar, epic Old Trafford careers.
“Bruno gets his individual awards and fairly so,” admits Solskjaer. “He’s been fantastic. The influence he’s made coming into the club, it just shows in the points tally that we’ve had since he arrived and his contribution to that, so he deserves the praise that he gets. He knows as well that he’s come into a team that makes him able to play on his best skills and attributes. On the pitch, he can express himself and he can take his risks because he’s got players around him that make the runs for him. The movement always creates the pass or releases that pass.
“And he’s got players there that really rate him and he rates them. He’s got a winning mentality. He’s never, never satisfied. He wants to improve. He wants to be better. He wants to do it right, he wants to be quicker, he wants to be stronger and that rubs off on other players.”
In his first 11 months as a Red, Bruno Fernandes has contributed directly and indirectly to a substantial increase in standards and expectations at Old Trafford.
As a unique and unforgettable 2020 comes to a close, having the Portuguese playmaker aboard prompts nothing but anticipation and excitement for the years ahead.