At the beginning of last season, as Manchester United stumbled to their worst top-flight start in 30 years, senior figures at Old Trafford concluded that if possible, a long-term target should be acquired in the forthcoming January window.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted a risk-taker, somebody who could fulfill his vision of a United side which plays the fast, aggressive football associated with Sir Alex Ferguson. A member of his coaching staff stressed the importance of a player who could operate with the ball in tight spaces.
Any new arrival would also have to meet the wider conditions of the club’s ‘cultural reboot’ – of being humble off-the-pitch, arrogant on it and always carrying an X-factor.
In the final days of the window, Bruno Fernandes signed from Sporting Clube de Portugal, in an initial £47m deal.
A year later, judging by the above criteria, it could hardly have gone any better.
From his very first training session, conducted at Fernandes’ request shortly after putting pen to paper on his five-and-a-half year deal, there was a sense that this was the right player at the right club at the right time.
Over the next few days, a buzz developed around Carrington as his new team-mates came to learn more about their new colleague and began to understand the difference that his style of play would make. Fernandes quickly settled in with compatriot Diogo Dalot, as well as other members of the squad’s Iberian contingent in David de Gea and Juan Mata, but his talents were quickly appreciated by everybody.
To Solskjaer’s staff, the new signing’s most impressive quality was a hard-working, single-minded and ruthless winning mentality.
It was exactly what a young United squad required. Ashley Young, the club captain, had recently left for Inter. His successor Harry Maguire was fast-tracked into the role. Underneath him, United lacked experienced lieutenants.
In that context, Fernandes quickly emerged as not only a leader but also a standard bearer.
Over the past year, he has not been afraid to take team-mates to task in training with direct but constructive criticism, particularly if he feels they are not showing the desired level of application, as is said to have happened on more than one occasion this season.
Nor does he see any issue with telling players what he thinks on-the-pitch. Victor Lindelof learned that much when Sevilla ended United’s hopes of winning the Europa League in Cologne last summer, but watch Fernandes closely during a game and you will always see at least one shake of the head, disapproving look and cutting comment sent in the direction of a team-mate.
“I knew that was what we were getting,” Solskjaer said through a wry smile earlier this week when asked about this side of the Portuguese’s personality.
In the weeks leading up to Fernandes’ arrival in Manchester, the United manager and his assistant Mike Phelan travelled to Portugal to watch their target play first-hand in Sporting’s 2-1 defeat to Porto. “I think he was in every team-mate’s ear that game and he was in the referee’s ear, the linesman he was into, and you know I like that,” Solskjaer recalled.
That was not the only thing which stood out at the Jose Alvalade Stadium, though.
Solskjaer was also taken in by Fernandes’ eagerness to assume responsibility in possession, to show for the ball even if he made a mistake and perhaps more than anything else, his frustration with Sporting’s defeat. This confirmed what United’s many background checks had already suggested: that he would never let his manager or his team-mates down.
Which is not to say that there have not been poor performances over the past year. One of the footnotes to October’s harrowing 6-1 home defeat against Tottenham was Solskjaer’s decision to substitute Fernandes at half time. There were some choice words in private after his muted display in the defeat to Arsenal a few weeks later, too.
Sometimes, the tongue-lashings have come in public. Midway through the final day showdown for Champions League qualification against Leicester City back in July, with the game still goalless, Fernandes was caught desperately far out of position.
A furious, low bellow of “Bruno” – the like of which is rarely heard from the United dugout – echoed around the King Power, leaving those in the press seats to try and identify its source. It was Solskjaer.
This season’s corresponding fixture fell on Boxing Day and ended in a 2-2 draw which saw Fernandes score one, assist another but also give the ball away to Harvey Barnes’ for Leicester’s first. When asked about this all-action individual display, Solskjaer admitted: “Sometimes I might tear my hair out and say that there’s an easier pass,” before adding, “but you can’t take that away from Bruno.”
It was a quote that struck at the essence of Fernandes’ role. Solskjaer was even more explicit after his playmaker’s disappointing display in the goalless draw at Anfield recently.
“He’s expected to create goals, score goals and sometimes the margins are against him… He’s always on the verge of creating something, even when he loses the ball, and that’s the position I want him in. That’s what he’s been told to do. He has to be the creative one. I want him to play the passes he sees.”
This is the risk-taking that Solskjaer wanted, the “box-opener” that he described Fernandes during his first few weeks at the club.
There are plenty of times when his passing is erratic – Fernandes’ completion rate is the lowest of any United player, worse even than David de Gea’s. At the same time, he has more assists, more expected assists, more key passes and more successful passes into the penalty area than anyone else at Old Trafford this season.
Only Kevin de Bruyne and Jack Grealish compare in the same categories across the top flight.
Prior to his arrival, United were often playing football that was the complete antithesis of the fast, aggressive style that their manager set out to achieve. It was solid but stale possession that lacked ambitious passing between the lines. The repeated absences of Paul Pogba – previously the closest thing to Fernandes in United’s squad, and yet still a very different player – did not help.
Quite simply: nobody at United prior to Fernandes’ arrival offered what he could. This only made his impact greater.
To illustrate the difference he has made, you can simply split United’s record under Solskjaer into two distinct periods – before and after Bruno. Since his signing, they have won more points-per-game, scored more goals, created better goal-scoring opportunities and have dominated opponents more often.
You might have expected the difference to be even starker – the hype around everything at Old Trafford often distorts the reality – and interestingly, there is barely any difference in United’s expected Premier League numbers before and after Bruno’s arrival. If anything, the defence has become worse without as much of the old, safe possession play for protection.
Even so, the difference in actual results is marked. A team winning 1.8 points-per-game generally finishes around the Champions League spots but has no guarantee of qualifying. A team earning 2.1 points-per-game can be all but certain of a top-four finish and would hope to challenge for the title.
Fernandes’ influence on that shift cannot be underestimated. Of United’s 67 league goals over the past year, he has either scored or assisted just under half.
Penalties have been a part of that, unquestionably. His response to those who say he is over-reliant on spot-kicks has been simple and consistent: they are a part of the game, they can often be the difference between winning and losing, there is nothing stopping anybody from practising them and they are harder than they look.
His ability from the spot is just another string to his bow, another facet of his game which makes him such a devastatingly effective player.
In the months leading up to the Fernandes signing, United’s recruitment processes came under great scrutiny. Critics argued they should have acted upon their longstanding interest in him sooner, giving in to Sporting’s demands the previous summer.
Others looked at the structure of the deal itself – with add-ons potentially increasing the total fee to £67.7m – and asked whether United’s long negotiations had achieved any sort of compromise. But a year on, does any of that matter? Fernandes is here now and the difference that he has made in the space of 12 months is likely worth those potential add-on fees alone.
This transfer was not a no-brainer, either. Expensive, peak-age and largely unheralded talents playing outside Europe’s big five leagues carry risks for elite clubs. There was immense pressure on United’s much-maligned recruitment structure to get this one right.
But Fernandes has exceeded all expectations to become arguably the outstanding signing of United’s post-Ferguson era. And what’s more, the best may still be yet to come.