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Soccer

As Bruno Fernandes Goes, So Does Manchester United

Manchester United's Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes celebrates after scoring their third goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Leeds United at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on December 20, 2020.
Nick Potts/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

It’s hard to recall a better upgrade at one position than the one Manchester United pulled off when signing Bruno Fernandes. Prior to the Portuguese No. 18’s addition to the club’s beleaguered midfield, the Red Devils were throwing Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira out there as the creative sparks in the center of the park. The results, predictably, were not great. But Fernandes has been exactly what United needed since joining from Sporting Lisbon midway through last season. The 26-year-old has been not only United’s best player in 2020, but also one of the very best players in the entire Premier League.

The latest example of Fernandes’s brilliance came on Sunday, as United hosted hated rivals Leeds United at Old Trafford. In the 6–2 blowout, Fernandes notched an assist and two goals. It was another near-perfect performance for Fernandes. His brace put him at nine goals for the campaign, the joint fifth-most in the Premier League, as well as the top count for midfielders.

Fernandes is somehow both the best midfielder in the Premier League right now and also one of its best scorers. Since coming to United, he has more assists than anyone in the English top division, and only trails Mo Salah in goals.

When Fernandes is playing at his peak level, United is difficult to defeat. Against West Ham on December 5, Fernandes came on at halftime with United down a goal and completely turned the game around, assisting Paul Pogba’s equalizer and generally turning the midfield tides in his side’s favor. United eventually won 3–1. Against Everton on November 7, Fernandes was even more crucial, answering the Toffees’ opening goal with two of his own before halftime, allowing United to dominate the second half en route to another 3–1 win. And though United got bounced from the Champions League in the group stage, it wasn’t due to any lack trying on Fernandes’s part: In the six group matches, the Portuguese scored four times and added another assist.

When Fernandes can’t get it going, though, United’s squad’s shortcomings in defense and non-Fernandes creativity become glaring. However, because he is often so good, Fernandes allows manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to put in two defensive linchpins behind him to ease the burden on the backline. On Sunday, that was McTominay (despite his two goals in the Leeds match, he’s not in any way an attacking midfielder) and Fred, who can be creative but mostly just serves as an extra release valve.

So it usually falls to Fernandes’s shoulders to carry the weight (and the ball) towards United’s talented forwards. He’s been up to the task for the entirety of 2020, and though the side has been broadly disappointing, particularly in Europe, Fernandes has been the bright spot that has kept the club in the hunt at the top of the table. United is currently in third place, just one point behind Leicester City and four behind league-leading Liverpool, with one fewer game played than both. Whether United is a “real” title contender or not is besides the point though. The club wouldn’t even be close to this level if not for the best transfer signing of the year, and if Fernandes keeps playing like this, there’s no reason that the good times won’t roll on in North West England.