It is difficult to remember any time when Manchester United were instrumentally dependent on one single player.
Maybe in 2011/12 when Wayne Rooney paved over the cracks of a declining squad by scoring 27 Premier League goals, but the veterans still played a big part in that campaign and a resolute defence secured United the second-best goals conceded record in the division.
Maybe back during the first five seasons of the Premier League, when Eric Cantona was Manchester United’s undisputed talisman and the biggest talent in English football. But the King’s world-class ability was supplemented by Ryan Giggs, Paul Ince and Roy Keane, and later the Class of 92.
In truth, it has never befitted a club of Manchester United’s natural grandeur to place all their hopes on the shoulders of just one individual, but that’s exactly what we’ve seen at Old Trafford this season.
It is no secret that since arriving in January, Bruno Fernandes has triggered a significant upturn in Manchester United’s results - last season United’s win percentage across all competitions rose by 9% and their loss percentage dropped by 15% for games in which the Portuguese was in the starting XI.
But whereas the initial narrative was one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finding the last and most important piece of his jigsaw to finally make United purr with the level of offensive verve expected at Old Trafford, Fernandes’ influence this season has become concentrated to the extreme.
Make no mistake about it, United’s entire game-plan right now can be accurately boiled down to three simple words: Bruno or bust.
Statistics aren’t necessarily needed to illustrate this; after all, just as United failed to score at home to Chelsea and Arsenal in two games where the opposition set up to specifically contain Fernandes as much as possible, the Red Devils won 3-1 away at Everton as Fernandes ran riot in midfield.
Nonetheless, the numbers do paint a troubling image.
In the Premier League, Fernandes is United’s top scorer and their joint-top creator, but he also ranks first throughout the squad for shots, key passes and tackles, as well as second for fouls won and passes overall.
That isn’t necessarily unusual for a No.10 who’s given such freedom in attack. Just look at Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish - he ranks within Villa’s top three for all those metrics as well.
But in many ways, that comparison illuminates the underlying point. Grealish is a top-end talent playing for a club that’s clearly a few levels below his own. Villa’s Grealish-centric approach is justified, if not obligatory - let’s not forget that just six months ago they were fighting off relegation.
United, in contrast, are one of the biggest clubs in the world. They’ve paid the three biggest record transfer fees in the history of the Premier League, and two of the players involved - Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba - are still with the club, yet the fate of their results has become intrinsically intertwined with the performances of Fernandes alone.
In the Premier League this season, he’s been responsible for 46% of their goals, 50% of their assists, 31% of their key passes, 22% of their shots, 17% of their tackles, 14% of their fouls won and 11% of their passes. Bear in mind that in an eleven-man team, a player’s average influence on any of the above would mathematically be around 9%.
But upon removing the attacking midfielder from the equation is when the level of United’s dependence truly comes to light. Without Fernandes’ contributions, in the Premier League this season the Red Devils would rank 13th for passes, 14th for shots, joint-15th for key passes, 17th for goals, joint-18th for assists, 19th for fouls won and 20th for tackles.
Likewise, if we re-examine United’s results while taking out Fernandes’ goals and assists, they would have lost to Brighton and Everton and drawn to West Brom, leaving them with just five points from nine games and a goal difference of -10. They’d be immediately below Burnley in 17th place, and that’s only when judging Fernandes’ direct impact on United’s scorelines.
There are obviously some caveats here, firstly in the fact United don’t rank particularly highly in any of those fields anyway, and secondly that if the Red Devils had never recruited Fernandes, they would’ve likely spent a similar amount of money on an alternative attacking force who could be having a similar impact on the outputs we’ve measured.
But much like our Grealish comparison, those caveats themselves highlight how problematic United’s reliance on Fernandes has become. First and foremost, in terms of United’s overall performances and results, it’s not actually working that well; of the last six games the Portugal star has started in all competitions, the Red Devils have only won three, scoring more than once on just two occasions.
Secondly, while it’s perhaps unfair to compare United to the rest of the Premier League minus their most influential and arguably most financially valuable player, it does beg the question of how exactly the Red Devils would cope if Fernandes were injured or suspended for a significant period of time.
Sometimes the absence of a key player can result in better performances as a team looks to fill their void as a collective, but in comparison to what the numbers tell us, that’s purely speculative, wishful thinking. The reality is that United are only playing in one way right now - everything goes through Bruno.
And that itself is incredibly perplexing because, as good as Fernandes is, he’s not the only top player in United’s squad. Pogba is a World Cup winning midfielder, Maguire commanded a world-record sum for a defender, Marcus Rashford amassed 24 goal involvements in the Premier League last season and Solskjaer continually talks up the ability of Donny van de Beek despite being yet to start him in a Premier League game.
Does United’s squad possess the same level of quality as Liverpool, City, Chelsea or even Spurs? Maybe it’s a little short of all of them. But there’s still more than enough talent for the starting XI to not be so centralised around one individual, and yet if anything Solskjaer’s tactics and team selections this season have only served to make Fernandes’ influence even more fundamental. United’s 4-2-3-1 formation seems purposely designed to place the 26-year-old at the heart of everything.
For a club of United’s size and resource, it’s starting to verge upon unbecoming. Whether you place ultimate blame for that on Solskjaer for tactics more suited to smaller clubs, on the likes of Ed Woodward for the quality of signings United have made in recent years, or on elite team-mates who appear only too content with letting Fernandes run the show, clearly something needs to change.
No person has ever been bigger than United - Sir Alex Ferguson made some painful decisions to ensure that precedent always prevailed - but right now, Fernandes is dwarfing everybody at Old Trafford.News Now - Sport News