The Portuguese has had a Cantona-esque ubiquity in his first year at Old Trafford. Even by his standards, however, Saturday’s display at Leicester was remarkable. He supplied Marcus Rashford’s opener – perhaps unintentionally, depending on whether a touch was meant to go to the Englishman but, as noted himself, that made up for the assist his team-mate cost him by missing a simpler chance he provided – and scored Manchester United’s second; there was no question about intent there. It meant that, in 28 Premier League games, he has been directly involved in 31 of United’s 60 league goals since his debut.
When installed as caretaker, Solskjaer positioned himself as the anti-Mourinho at Old Trafford. Two years into his reign, he remains his predecessor’s opposite. Consider his verdict on Fernandes and imagine Mourinho saying anything similar.
“He takes risks, which any Manchester United player should be allowed to do and be brave enough to do. He is definitely a brave boy,” the Norwegian said. “Sometimes I might tear my hair out and say that there is an easier pass to the right or to the left or back but you cannot take that away from Bruno.” Fernandes reconnects Solskjaer with his image of United as adventurers and entertainers.
Perhaps the Leicester game was an extreme version even of Fernandes. His pass completion rate dipped to 70.5 percent, down on his seasonal average of 75.7. That, in turn, is the second lowest of United’s outfield players, above only Edinson Cavani, whose own willingness to risk losing possession permitted him the bravery to provide the pass for Fernandes’ goal.
But there is a trade-off between keeping the ball and doing something with it. Fernandes can feel a throwback to the days before anyone counted completed passes. Then a certain type of a No 10 emerged. Their pass completion rate could touch 90 percent, but they rarely scored or assisted. Theirs was an innocuous brand of accuracy. And when Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard occupied the goal for United in the first half of last season, neither posed much of a threat. They brought possession, but not penetration.
Fernandes has been a transformative force, forever risking losing the ball as he looks to release United’s fast forwards. “He is definitely a player who impacts the results,” Solskjaer said. His influence can be measured in other ways. The spectre of Mauricio Pochettino is lifting; Solskjaer’s seeming successor in waiting has stopped waiting, United’s sudden surge into the top four a reminder their manager has more staying power than most expected. Fernandes, with seven goals and four games in an eight-match spell that has produced 20 points, is a major reason why.
“You want him to be the X-factor,” Solskjaer said. More often than not, he is. And Solskjaer certainly wants him to be the X-factor. It is a valid criticism of the Norwegian’s United that their tactics are overly based on one man and their results unduly reliant on him. But without Fernandes’ wonderful 2020, Solskjaer may have the ex-factor and perhaps Pochettino would now be managing United and not headed for Paris Saint-Germain.