Bruno Fernandes: The player who always gives Manchester United a chance
Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes has had an unusual route to the top. From the youth team of Boavista to Serie B side Novara, the Portuguese international ultimately had to return to Portugal with Sporting Lisbon before earning his move to Manchester United, where he has become their most important player.
Bruno Fernandes is an overnight sensation for Manchester United, but his immediate burst onto the scene in the Premier League is a result of years of hard work.
The path for most Portuguese players into the top European leagues is usually more straightforward than the United midfielder's. Teenagers generally emerge from the youth teams of Benfica, Sporting and Porto, before Jorge Mendes gets involved in brokering a move to Spain or the Premier League. Given the size of the country, the national team generally punches above its weight on the international scene, and their players have a pedigree that sees them warrant large transfer fees, and large wages too.
Luis Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Carvalho, João Félix and others have followed this standard path, as have many others. But for Fernandes, he emerged at the youth team of Boavista, whose most famous modern alumnus is Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. It is Porto’s second team, much less glamorous than Porto FC.
He never made a professional appearance for his boyhood club, and instead moved to Serie B side Novara as a teenager. Moving swiftly into their first team, he needed just 23 games to convince Udinese - who traditionally have an excellent network of scouts - to take him into Serie A. After three years, he was able to move onto Sampdoria for his final season in Italy, still in his early twenties.
Fernandes was never a poor player, just poorly suited to his teams. There is no great error, but given he is now 26 and still rake thin, this was a player too physically slight to impose himself on the game, and not yet assured enough to put in consistently convincing performances. The talent was there, but the reliability was not. For Novara, Udinese and Sampdoria, the clubs did not have the patience to develop a youngster when the pressure was on survival first. At Udinese and Sampdora, the focus was elsewhere in the team, and he had not earned the right to be centre of attention. A bigger team might have suited him better, and that is ultimately what he got.
Sampdoria-Inter, Serie A 2016-2017: da sinistra, Bruno Fernandes, Fabio Quagliarella e João Mario (Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
Nevertheless, his time in Italy may have been crucial to becoming the player he is now, learning how to play across midfield, and how to fight. Fernandes said in an interview with UEFA last year: “The experience in Italy helps me a lot to be a more mature and ready player... I learned to fight and to adapt fast to a new culture and a new football”.
Given he now plays for United and is fundamentally their most important player, it feels intuitively odd that he failed to move onto another, bigger Italian club, instead of returning to his homeland with Sporting Lisbon first. Traditionally a move back to Portugal is an admission of failure for a player who struck out to another European country. Nani went back to Sporting once his time at United ended, which essentially marked him out as a declining threat. The same for Ricardo Quaresma. For Fernandes, it has worked the other way, with the return to the Primeira Liga allowing him to finally secure a move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Many people understandably had doubts about Fernandes’ move, wondering why he had to wait until 24 before he moved elsewhere. But remember, Novara had identified him as worth a move when he was just a teenager, meaning there was a talent that moved a club to pay out for a player and also to think he was sufficiently capable to improve while adjusting to a new country and style of football. And he did that, playing well enough to earn a move up the pyramid the following season.
Manchester United's Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes celebrates after scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium
Image credit: Getty Images
Similarly, Sampdoria were ready to move for him when he was at Udinese, and we can assume the talents he has now were in there somewhere, but not yet perfected. He scored a few goals, but he did so at smaller clubs. It was when he went to Sporting that he really attracted attention.
It is said that Fernandes has an iron will to win. We’ve all seen the videos of him explaining his frustration to rivals, colleagues and inanimate objects when he feels things aren’t going his way, and his desire is for success above all else. Just look at Tuesday night’s stories that suggest doubling his wages to £200,000 a week is not enough to convince him to sign a new deal at United, first he wants them to prove it by improving the squad around him. First Sporting, now United. The evidence suggests that Fernandes is a player who needs to be close to winning something to truly come alive. That is far from perfect, but it explains why his journey from the Boavista youth team has been steady rather than electric.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he has demonstrated why he is vital to this team, but at the same time why Italy might not have been his perfect setting.
His commitment to aggressive, forward-thinking passing is what United needs. This is not a team that is technically capable of keeping the ball - they needed only one-third of possession at the weekend to beat Manchester City, and to do so comfortably. Pranging out with the ball in defence and midfield is beyond Scott McTominay, Fred, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Better to have someone able to drive the ball forward to Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Dan James and Marcus Rashford, players who can use their pace to exploit space and score goals. It might not be perfect, but it is the best use of the squad’s talents. In the more studied Italian leagues, he might have been viewed as more wasteful, and his lack of goals at the time would understandably warrant less indulgence.
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As well as that, since the departure of Alex Ferguson, United have lost their swagger and confidence. They are far from getting it back, but Fernandes has often had the knack of kick-starting or completing a comeback. It is clownishness that means that United often fall behind to an early goal, but it is testament to Fernandes that he can drag his teammates back with him to the finish line. Before, when they were filled with self-loathing under Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, comebacks felt more lethargic and less regular. Solskjaer is far from a tactical genius, but the players appear content with his direction for now.
Given his teammates’ reticence, his ability and willingness to put himself at centre stage and back it up - the opposite of Paul Pogba - with a goal every other game, the calm to take penalties, and providing assists, he has given the team an identity and someone to look to. Maguire was bought to give the side professionalism as much as anything else, but Fernandes has given them leadership on the pitch.
United have a way to go yet, and it is entirely possible that the club will not be good enough to get past AC Milan in the Europa League over the next two games. But with Fernandes, however badly the team plays, and however badly Fernandes himself plays, they will always have a chance.