It was after Bruno Fernandes’ third game for Manchester United that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew he had made the right decision in bringing the midfielder to Old Trafford.
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While the rest of the squad were largely satisfied with a 1-1 draw against Club Brugge in the last-32 of the 2019-20 Europa League knowing there was another leg to come, Fernandes was not. It was the type of reaction Solskjaer had seen before in the United teams he played in, and the Norwegian was quietly pleased to see his new signing from Sporting CP throw his shirt down in the corner of the dressing room.
Solskjaer is also of the opinion that draws, even ones that can be rectified a week later, are never good enough. After only playing the final nine minutes in Belgium, Fernandes asked Solskjaer to start the return leg in Manchester. He scored, and United won 5-0.
As he approaches his first anniversary at the club, it remains one of only four times Fernandes has played at Old Trafford in front of fans. Since making his debut on Feb. 1, 2020, the Portugal international has been one of United’s most transformative signings. He has been so influential to even draw comparisons with Eric Cantona, whose arrival in November 1992 triggered a run of four top-flight titles in five seasons after a 26-year run without one.
Fernandes still has a long way to go to match Cantona’s trophy haul, but it’s worth noting that United finished second the season before the Frenchman was signed. When Fernandes pulled on a United shirt for the first time, they were fifth in the table, 36 points behind leaders Liverpool. A year on, they are one point off the top.
His numbers speak for themselves. By winning the Premier League’s player of the month award for December, he became the first player to collect the trophy four times in a calendar year, having also won it in February, June and November.
Given his broad impact, it is remarkable that in the summer of 2019, United appeared happy for Fernandes to join Tottenham Hotspur. Having grown weary of talks with Sporting that were going nowhere and with nagging reservations about how Fernandes might adapt to the Premier League, they were prepared to let him move to north London, particularly after learning Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy had been quoted a much lower price. But the deal never materialised, and when United’s Portuguese scouts urged the recruitment department to take another look, Solskjaer and assistant Mike Phelan went to watch Sporting themselves, seeing a player they believed had improved markedly since the end of the previous season.
Desperate to improve his team’s attacking output, Solskjaer asked executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and chief negotiator Matt Judge to enquire about Jack Grealish, but after that was knocked back by Aston Villa, United ploughed ahead with talks for Fernandes. The deal, completed on Jan. 30, 2020, could end up costing £67.6 million if certain performance indicators are met, but if Fernandes continues on the same trajectory, Woodward can consider it the best value for money signing since he took over from David Gill in 2013.
In just 12 months, Fernandes has established himself as the focal point of the club. There is already talk of a new contract to reflect his status despite already having a deal until 2025 plus the option of another year. His shirt is the best seller in the Megastore, and when it comes time for international broadcasters to submit interview requests before and after games, his name is usually top of the list. When Amad Diallo has trained with the first team following his move from Atalanta, Fernandes has been keen to offer the 18-year-old winger advice and encouragement during training.
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One of the things that had impressed Solskjaer most during the background checks on the 26-year-old was how well he had captained Sporting. Having decided the squad lacked leaders when he took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018, it was one of the reasons Solskjaer has also tracked Grealish, captain of Aston Villa. Fernandes was made United captain for the first time for the Champions League group game with Paris Saint-Germain in October. He was sitting in the pre-match news conference with Solskjaer when his manager announced the news. Caught by surprise, the midfielder was worried the cameras had filmed him looking confused, and so keen to project the right image, he asked club officials to pull the video before being assured everything was fine.
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On the pitch, Fernandes has been just as carefully managed. Solskjaer has admitted to “pulling my hair out” at how often Fernandes is prone to losing the ball — even for an attacker attempting risky passes — but it was something he was made aware of by the analysts before Fernandes joined, and the United boss has told his players, who can sometimes become frustrated in training and games, to let him keep trying.
“He’s expected to create goals, score goals and sometimes the margins are against him,” Solskjaer said of Fernandes earlier this season. “He’s always on the verge of creating something, even when he loses the ball, and that’s the position I want him in and that’s what he’s been told to do. I want him to play the passes he sees.”
Solskjaer has said privately that Fernandes is allowed to give the ball away, particularly given the amount of running he does to get it back. Members of the coaching staff have tried to encourage him to become more thoughtful in the way he uses his energy, but have since learned he is happier charging around, desperate to get on the ball and relentlessly pressing opponents. He is the same in training, and staff have repeatedly had to order him inside for fear he would stay out on the Carrington pitches all night if there was no one there to tell him to go home.
Following his appointment two years ago, Solskjaer realised very quickly that the team needed to change off the pitch if they wanted to win on it. New players have been key to his mission at Old Trafford, and none more important than Fernandes. A year on from his arrival, the decision to sign him has already been vindicated.