“I’ve got more than one game-changer,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said at the Amex on Tuesday night and given the style and verve of the victory he had just witnessed that may well be the case. Only one player has changed Manchester United’s season though, practically turning it on its head.
Following his brace in Brighton, Bruno Fernandes has now scored five Premier League goals and set up three others, surpassing any other top-flight player over the same period. Only Robin van Persie had more after as many games at the start of his United career.
Fernandes’s long-awaited arrival from Sporting in late January practically coincided with the start of United’s 15-game unbeaten run across all competitions. He did not play in the first two – joining after the win at Tranmere and missing the EFL Cup semi-final second leg away to Manchester City – yet it’s hard to imagine we would be talking about this run if he had never signed at all.
Sure, he was expected to make an impact, but did anyone expect this? “We have some top players and Bruno has come and been fantastic,” Solskjaer said. “He has brought that winning mentality with him – that 99 per cent is not good enough, it has to be 100 per cent.”
But if Fernandes is about high percentages when it comes to the mentality, work rate and effort that Solskjaer demands, the rest of his game is one of low percentages. For example, would it surprise you to learn that his pass completion rate was the worst of any player on Tuesday night? Lower even than David de Gea’s?
It shouldn’t. Fernandes’s game isn’t built on safe sideways passes to help retain possession. It is built around the pass that only comes off once every so often, but when it comes off, it counts.
Nor is he about tap-ins – even if, ironically, for United’s third goal he finished off a brilliant, sweeping counter-attack from a distance of about seven yards. He is about goals like his first of the night, the slightly scuffed shot outside the box that only beats the goalkeeper once in every ten.
Do you like those odds? Probably not, but then watching Solskjaer’s United before Fernandes arrived was like having a go on the copper coin pushers at a Blackpool arcade. Low stakes and little, if any, reward.
That was something Solskjaer highlighted back in October, when United had won two of their first eight league games and the decision to appoint him on a permanent basis was being scrutinised for the first time.
“If you watch the best teams around, they risk the ball more often than we do, make more runs in behind and that’s part of the process for the boys,” Solskjaer said. “When they’re losing confidence, maybe they want to play a bit more safe and it’s my duty to say ‘come on’. It’s not [about] safety here. At this club, you do take risks.” Good news. Taking risks is his new signing’s raison d’etre.
Of course, Fernandes will not be the decisive presence in every game, or even play particularly well. In fact, his style is likely to result in a few truly dreadful performances every now and again, where his cavalier approach will cost United. Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Carrow Road was not a bad display by any stretch but still his least effective since joining and it told in an all-round underwhelming team performance.
But on the night of United’s last defeat some 15 games ago, when Solskjaer’s side had nearly three-quarters of the ball against Burnley yet succumbed to a two-goal defeat, they were desperate for someone to break them out of their stupor, like in so many disappointing performances before it.
Fernandes joined five days later and United have not looked the same since.
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