Bruno Fernandes’ arrival at Old Trafford in January signalled a real statement of intent by Manchester United.
They pursued the Portuguese international for well over 12 months and were met with numerous obstacles along the way. At one point, any potential deal looked to be dead in the water, with Sporting CP reportedly upping their asking price to €80million.
Thankfully, parties agreed on a deal for €50million plus add-ons before the January window closed. While that’s proving to be a more than worthwhile investment for United, Sporting CP will be rather content with their profit accrued from the deal.
In the summer of 2017, the Portuguese side signed the midfielder for just €7.2million from Seria A side Sampdoria. Up until that point, it had been a peculiar career trajectory for Fernandes who joined Novara in Serie B at 18 after failing to impress in his homeland. A move to Udinese for €2.5m followed after his first season in Italy, and three seasons later he went on loan to Sampdoria for a fee of €1m.
Sampdoria triggered a clause to buy the exciting attacker for just €6m at the end of the loan, but opted to sell him on immediately to Sporting CP for a small profit.
It’s a decision they would have undoubtedly gone onto regret because although he wasn’t quite the polished talent we see today, his budding ability was still clear to see. In that campaign with Sampdoria, he was predominantly used at the tip of the midfield in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. He proved brilliant in identifying space in between the lines to receive possession and in creating chances for the duo in the attack.
He managed just five goals and two assists across that season which looks unremarkable given his output in the seasons since, but his production in other departments highlighted the impact he was having inside the final third for his side.
The midfielder averaged 6.1 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes and averaged 1.8 passes that led directly to shots on goal per 90 too. He was also attempting 2.8 shots on goal himself per 90 minutes, which is high for a midfielder. For comparison, Andreas Pereira has attempted the most efforts on goal from United’s midfield this season with a noticeably lower average of 2.1 attempts per 90.
Once at Sporting CP, Fernandes’ development progressed at lightning speed. By the time he departed for Old Trafford, earlier this year, he had established himself as one the Primeira Liga’s most acclaimed players and one of Europe’s most talked-about talents.
He was particularly impressive last season where he finished the season having netted 32 goals across all competitions. Additionally, he managed 12 assists, which was a feat he repeated this season in half the time before leaving Sporting in January.
Due to his ever-improving abilities at Sporting CP, his role evolved from that as a solitary no.10 to a player granted freedom to roam across multiple different positions and areas on the pitch.
Despite fluctuating between coming deeper, playing advanced or roaming out onto the wings, Fernandes threat in terms of both scoring and creating goals still dramatically increased, as the above highlights.
The 25-year-old has managed to translate that impressive form seamlessly since making the switch to United and has already registered seven-goal involvements in just seven starts.
His United career so far has seen him return to featuring predominantly as a no.10 in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-1-2. Yet, whilst the same has been more than successful so far, there is a chance we could see his role change in the coming seasons.
One instrumental factor behind any change in role could be down to a return of team-mate Paul Pogba. The Frenchman’s season has been clouded by injuries and constant speculation linking him with a move away from Old Trafford. However, comments from the Frenchman in recent social media posts suggests he seems committed to the club for the foreseeable future at least.
To accommodate both players in the coming seasons, we may see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer install one of the formations we saw him deploy early into his reign as United boss last season. The Norwegian trialled an attacking 4-3-3 as well as a narrow 4-2-2-2 to good effect at various stages in last year's campaign, but a high amount of injuries particularly in midfield positions this season have restricted his options somewhat.
Both of these setups would remove any natural no.10 option, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in the coming seasons, Fernandes could progress into a natural no.8 type player, working within the half-spaces along with Pogba.
Beyond his already-illustrated attacking capabilities, the Portuguese international is also competent in the defensive phases of the game, averaging 4.5 successful defensive actions per 90 last season which was mid-ranking for midfielders in the Primeira Liga. This was not too dissimilar to Pogba’s average of 4.8 from last season too.
What all of this means is that both formations could accommodate both players to make United extremely threatening in attack but also still well-balanced defensively. Therefore any role change for United’s newest star could go on to be more of an overall advantage than a hindrance.