This past January we finally saw the culmination of one of the longest-running transfer sagas of recent years.
Bruno Fernandes, the Portuguese international midfielder, finally left Sporting to join Manchester United in a deal that worth £47M but with the potential to increase with performance-related fees.
The scale of the transfer felt slightly off given the player’s age; Fernandes is already 25 and he is relatively untested outwith the Portuguese top-flight. This last concern was somewhat mitigated by the performances that we have seen from the midfielder for the Portuguese national team, but it was still valid.
There can be no doubt that in terms of pure output Fernandes is an impressive player. Over the course of the first half of this season, before the transfer went through, he had already played 1,659 minutes for Sporting with 8 goals and 6 assists.
At the time of writing, Fernandes has played nearly every minute of his career with Manchester United, and with 703 of them under his belt we are starting to get a sense of how he will be used by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and how he fits in with the rest of the team.
So what kind of player is Bruno, and how have United used him?
When assessing players in this manner we can use data to start to build a picture of their strengths, before watching game footage to provide further context to the numbers. With this in mind, it is helpful to isolate the data and compare it to others that are currently playing in the same league.
Before doing so I already had a strong idea of what kind of player Fernandes is. He is perhaps most comfortable as a 10 but can also play as an attacking 8. He tends to roam across the full width of the pitch and whenever in possession of the ball he has a strong tendency to look to progress it quickly towards the opposition goal.
The first set of data that we will consider consists of Key Passes P90 and passes to the penalty area P90. I used the P90 data for players in the Premier League who had played in either centre midfield or more advanced as a 10. As you can see, Fernandes has quickly established himself as a creative force for Manchester United and other than Kevin De Bruyne, who is a clear outlier, he is beginning to become a standout player at Premier League level.
He is currently averaging just under 0.8 key passes per 90 and 5.5 passes into the penalty area. This highlights how effective Fernandes is when progressing the ball in the final third for United.
As well as being creative in these advanced areas Fernandes is also something of a shot monster. He tends to take a high volume of shots and displays a clear willingness to shoot from range. This time I have used a data set that compares shots P90 with xG P90 to give an accurate picture as to how these two work together. As you can see from the data above Fernandes is performing exactly as expected. He is averaging just over 3.6 shots per match with an xG of 0.33 per 90 minutes.
Now, with a picture forming of what kind of player Fernandes is the next step is to see how he is performing for United so far. Since Fernandes made the move from Portugal to Manchester we have seen United line up in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1, with both systems allowing for players who can occupy the space behind the lone striker. This has perfectly suited Fernandes as has the freedom he has been allowed to drift across the full width of the pitch.
PASSING & VISION
The first thing to highlight is the vision and ability on the ball that Fernandes displays for United. With Paul Pogba suffering from consistent injury issues United have been crying out for a creative force in the midfield over the course of this season.
Now, we see Fernandes effectively act as the pivot in the final third with all of the attacking play for United travelling through him. Fernandes possesses the rare ability to be able to pause and slow the game down when under pressure. If you watch him carefully you will see him stop when in motion, either with or without the ball, to allow the play to develop ahead of him. This tends to allow Fernandes to see patterns ahead of the ball that other players do not and this begins to explain some of the creative passes that he plays.
In this example, Fernandes took possession of the ball at the edge of a crowded penalty area. Instead of rushing his decision we saw him wait and attract pressure to the ball. This slight pause was enough to allow the defensive line to move towards the ball and space to be created between them and the goalkeeper. An angled pass dropped into this space created an easy goalscoring chance for the United player at the far post.
This time we see a situation where Fernandes has received the ball in transition, originally with his back to goal. He spins a defender and then drives into the opposition half in possession of the ball. The player just ahead of Fernandes in the image above is actually poorly positioned and he is essentially blocking the progress of Fernandes. On the far side, however, is a United player who is threatening to run in behind the defensive line.
In most cases here the player in possession will try to play a high pass to access this run.
Instead, we see Fernandes play a driven pass with the outside of his foot that curls the ball directly into the path of the running player.
RECEIVING IN SPACE
There are various ways that teams will look to progress the ball forward when they are in the attacking phase. Some are more direct in their approach with direct balls into space and runners looking to move on to them. United are more deliberate in their approach as they look to progress the ball from the back while playing through the thirds. In order to achieve this, they need to have players who can receive possession between the lines of the opposition. This is an area in which Fernandes is important for United.
We see an example of this above as United are attacking in the second half of their Europa League match against LASK Linz. Fernandes has moved off of the shoulder of the midfielder and into a pocket of space. As the pass is played through and Fernandes collects possession he has space and time to turn and threaten the defensive line. The wide player then makes a run in behind and the Portuguese midfielder has the vision and quality to quickly find this run.
Above is another example of Fernandes helping United to progress through the thirds. As the man in possession looks for a pass the Portuguese midfielder has already drifted away from his marker into a pocket of space. The ball is played forward and the defender behind Fernandes looks to press the ball. He is, however, easily turned and Fernandes can then look for the next connection to continue with the progression of the ball.
Bruno Fernandes has, to this point, been an undisputed success in his early career in Manchester. He has provided a spark to the entire squad and created a link between the midfield and attack that previously did not exist. In his first month in English football, we have already seen Fernandes win the Player of the Month award. Chances are this will not be the only award that he picks up in England.