Bruno Fernandes has been heavily linked with
Manchester United and a deal may well be done this transfer window. While it could be argued that Fernandes is
not going to fill some of the more pressing needs in the Manchester United squad, he’s
a talented attacking midfielder who last season scored 20 goals for Sporting Clube de Portugal,
the second highest in the league, as well as registering 13 assist, again the second
most. This season he has eight league goals, four
of which have come from the penalty spot, and seven assists from 15 appearances already. Fernandes is the dominant force in Sporting’s
side, the player through whom most things go. Indeed, for all players in the Portuguese
Primeira who’ve played over 700 minutes this season, not just Sporting players, Fernandes
is 10th for expected goals per 90 (0.41), seventh for expected assists per 90 (0.27),
first for smart passes, or passes that open up attacking opportunities for their team
(3.39 per 90), fourth for passes into the final third (10.83 per 90) and first for deep
completed passes (3.14 per 90). There is an argument about so-called ‘stat-padding’
in the Portguese top flight, that a player like Fernandes can dominate because the league
is weaker overall – there is some truth to this, but Portugal is the best rated league
outside the top five in Europe by club ELO rankings, and Sporting equate to a mid-to-lower
half Premier League side by the same measure []. Sporting have used a variety of systems this
season, but generally prefer a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 – these see Bruno Fernandes deployed
either as a 10 playing behind a striker, generally the Brazilian Luis Phellype, or as a flanking
central midfielder in a three anchored by Idrissa Doumbia. Fernandes’ movement is smart. He’s adept
as fashioning shooting chances through the timing of his runs. He likes to loiter in
the space between the defence and midfield line, and then either burst past the defensive
line if they’re relatively static, for example if they’re expecting a floated ball in to
a tall striker, or receive the ball in space in front of the defensive line and shoot from
distance. He also likes to drift into the right half
space, scoring from here this season against LASK of Austria and Rosenborg of Norway, attacking
the channel and isolating the centre back on that side; he can use his technical control
to cut back inside, as against Rosenborg, or just beat the goalkeeper low and with power
as against LASK. The key is finding the space and attacking it, and he excels at this. A number of his assists come from this area
too. Especially if Sporting break at pace, Fernandes will target the channel and look
to cross to those running into the box, but he’s also capable of standing a player up
and crossing well from a standing position, with curl on the ball swinging from right
to left. As a corner taker, this is useful too, and his set-piece delivery can be impressive,
but it also means if he’s on the left side, runs towards the back post can be very dangerous. Fernandes is capable of picking a pass from
deep too, and he will sometimes drop quite deep for Sporting and then launch longer balls
forwards towards the front line to run in behind for. From a more advanced position,
he’s more likely to drop into space away from the defensive line and then spread the
ball wide to an overlapping full-back. His range of passing is impressive, though, and
he generally has the technical ability to execute. He’s also good at switching the angle of
attacks, driving infield then releasing a pass into the space created by his own run
– the key thing is for him to find space in the first instance so he’s able to have
the time to pick a long pass, an angle-changing pass, or to shoot. So how would he work for Manchester United?
Bruno Fernandes plays best in the pockets of space between the lines, with the time
and space to use his technical ability and creativity. He could work as a deeper playmaker
but might struggle defensively as part of a double pivot in a more physical league,
and it seems likely United are attracted by his attacking ability in the 10 role rather
than his deeper passing. The key is to provide him with runners outside,
so he can slide passes through and then make the dangerous late runs that can bring him
goals. United must also not crowd the space in behind
the striker. This can be a danger if teams play with inverted wingers – everyone ends
up being clustered in the same areas. United should look to stretch the width as they attack,
but then have runners darting inside as a passing option, which will also drag the defence
back and give Fernandes more of an opportunity to shoot. Fernandes will also need to build a rapport
with his striker – their movement is key to creating space for him around the edge
of the box. At Sporting, he is/was the key man, and play was built around him – that
won’t be the case at United, and his ability to function well within a unit, rather than
to be its focus, will be hugely important. He’s a good technical footballer who can
bring a lot to the Premier League, but United will need to adapt to bring the best out of
him, and so will he.