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Bruno Fernandes is talented, but not a savior

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Manchester United Training and Press Conference Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

The long drawn out Bruno Fernandes transfer saga is finally over. Manchester United had been linked with the Portuguese midfielder since the summer and have finally brought him to Old Trafford.

In Fernandes, United are getting the creative midfielder that they so desperately need. Many fans have been pining for him since the summer window and are elated that he’s finally arrived, but others, not so much.

These are valid questions that point out some truths. Here are some answers.

United were heavily linked with Bruno throughout last summer, but all that speculation came from the Portuguese media. This has been confirmed by several outlets, including Samuel Luckhurst from the Manchester Evening News, a man who never misses a chance to criticize Ed Woodward or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United weren’t interested in Bruno over the summer, but his name being linked is a classic maneuver from teams and agents who are looking to garner up interest in their player. This is even more common in Portugal where agents and clubs are known to be sheisty to try and get bigger fees.

It’s no coincidence that as this dragged on through January, the past week saw two new reports suggesting Manchester City and Barcelona were suddenly preparing €80+ million bids for Bruno. It was all hogwash, ploys in the Portuguese media as an attempt to sway United to offer more money.

Seeing Bruno be shopped around and linked with every club under the sun was the first red flag. That’s usually a tell-tale sign that all the links are coming from an agent and he’s just looking to move his client for a big fee. Nevertheless, Sporting needed to move him because they need the sale money to operate the club. It was widely known that he was available, and yet only Tottenham approached Sporting with a bid. When Sporting said they wanted more than the £40 million Tottenham offered, Spurs walked away.

Sporting were drumming up interest last summer as an attempt to capitalize on Fernandes’ fantastic season where he scored 20 goals and added 13 assists (32 goals and 18 assists in all competitions). But there was one problem: the underlying numbers didn’t back up the production Bruno put up.

Six of his 20 league goals came from the penalty spot. Several more came from outside the box. He was out performing his non-penalty xG by 2x! Is that sustainable?

Therefore, while Bruno caught the eyes of the biggest clubs in Europe, those clubs apparently wanted to see if he could keep up that production.

This season he’s managed to both keep up that production, while also having it predictably come back to earth. The goals have predictably lowered — only 7 of his 13 league and Europa League goals have come in open play. He’s still taking a ton — 40 of his 60 total league shots from outside the box (2.35 per 90) — but only one has found the back of the net.

The assists are still there, as are a bunch of other underlying creative numbers. Per Opta, Bruno has been involved in 115 open play sequences that end in shots, the highest total in the league. The next highest player has 85.

But there’s also the fact that he’s been doing this in Portugal, which let’s face it, is essentially a Mickey Mouse league. He puts up great numbers in the Europa League, which will help United since they play in that league too, but that’s still a step down in the quality and physicality that he’ll see week in week out in England. So the question is, how will his game translate to the Premier League?

Fernandes already has had a stint in a big five league. He played three years in Serie A, a league where you’re allotted time and space on the ball, with Udinese and Sampdoria.

His numbers in Italy were paltry. Ten goals and 8 assists over 95 appearances. He was never able to be a consistent starter. His underlying numbers were pretty meh as well. His best season came in 2016/17 with Sampdoria where he had a 0.30 NPxG/90, 0.23 xA/90, and a 0.21 xGBuildup/90. It’s not terrible considering he only played 1736 minutes that season, but nothing to write home about either.

Fernandes’ form in Portugal has lead to him getting 19 caps for Portugal. But even there his numbers are underwhelming. He only started 11 of those games and he’s only completed the full 90 minutes four times. In the 19 games he’s played, Portugal have scored 47 goals. Bruno has two of them. They came against Algeria and Luxembourg, not exactly the world’s best opposition. His three assists were against Serbia, Lithuania, and a young USA team playing their first game after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I don’t watch any Portuguese soccer and thus have rarely seen Fernandes play. While all those numbers certainly made me skeptical, I’m also the first to admit that numbers don’t tell the full story: you need to use your eyes as well.

That’s why over the past three weeks I’ve been scouring the internet for as much Bruno footage as I could find so I could really get a view of the player. I’m aware that most of these highlight reels on YouTube are designed to make him look like a superstar and I’ve gotta say, I’m still pretty underwhelmed.

Clearly there is talent here. You’re not going to find many assists more gorgeous than this.

Not only is there talent, there’s brains.

This is the exact type of off the ball run that United need to, but don’t ever seem to, make. Having Bruno making those runs adds another dimension to the attack. Now we just need to hope that Andreas Pereira, Fred, Nemanja Matić, Scott McTominay or anyone that’s not named Paul Pogba can reward that run with a pass.

How about this long ball? Tremendous.

It’s a great assist, and without Paul Pogba this season United have been desperately missing someone who can pick out long passes. But once again it brings up the question: how will this translate to the Premier League? This goal is scored because of horrific goalkeeping, and it’s not unfair to ask if a shot would even get off had this been in England, a league where goalkeepers typically play much higher up.

This is a great cross, something United need, but it’s set up from Bruno beating his defender one-on-one (without much effort I may add) in an area of the pitch where, in England, you never get one-on-ones. There’s always either a center back or midfielder providing coverage for the fullback there, especially when a playmaker has the ball. Even more so because United will usually have their fullbacks overlapping, which brings over more defenders.

Then there’s this one, another great cross but, look at what he does before hand.

That very little move results in a ton of time to pick out that cross, from some very lazy defending. Do we really think he’ll have time at the edge of the box like that? That defenders will just give up after buying a fake?

How about the goals?

This is a good goal, and it could be replicated in England, though the amount of times you’d face defending this lazy is questionable. Especially since he won’t have the benefit of playing against Phil Jones. Anthony Martial did something similar against Fulham last year, but, that’s part of the reason why they went down.

When I showed the defending in this one to a friend his response was “whose testimonial was this?”

Holy deflection, Batman!

Yes Bruno could score from outside the box, which is something United really lack, but he also shoots a ton from outside the box. Two thirds of his shots in the league this year have come from outside the box and he’s only scored on one of them. That’s a little scary considering United already have the highest percentage of shots from outside the box...

This isn’t something I want to be right about. I would love nothing more than for someone to show me this article at the end of the season, or at the end of next season and laugh about how wrong I was.

There’s no denying that this is an immensely talented player but these are valid concerns to have. Especially the part about no other team really going in for him last summer. United acted now because the number 10 position has been a black hole for them all season. They’re desperate for some creativity. But we also know that James Maddison and Jack Grealish are higher on their list of targets, and if they were available in January United would have gone for them.

They went for Bruno because he’s the one that was available. No matter how you sugar coat it there’s always going to be a faint hint of a panic buy there.

Like I said, Bruno is a very talented player. If he comes in and makes those off the ball runs he’s worth the money for that alone. He’s better than Andreas Pereira and that alone will make United a better team. Depending on how the forwards do in Marcus Rashford’s absence, fourth place seems suddenly very attainable.

His ability to take free kicks should be a very useful asset for United, if only so we never ever have to see this visual ever again.

But a savior? That he’s not.

This will only be a good signing if United continue building upon it. Some fans talk of Bruno being a long term replacement for Paul Pogba, and he’s not. Pogba is significantly better than Bruno, and he’s only a year and a half older. Bruno isn’t exactly going to develop into another Pogba.

This works if United continue to go after the attacking targets they’d already identified for next summer. If United are going to compete for titles, Bruno is the type of player that needs to be fighting for his place every week.

Unfortunately, with the very attainable add ons Bruno’s transfer fee could easily jump to €55 million, which will make him one of the five most expensive transfers in United’s history. That sum doesn’t bother me (money isn’t the same as it used to be), but when you’re on that list the burden of transfer price expectations is inevitable. That could make adapting to life at Old Trafford a bit more difficult.

In reality, he’s a January transfer trying to invigorate our season. If he provided three goals and five assists the rest of the way I’d be elated. Hopefully he can also be the next Europa League Henrikh Mkhitaryan (six goals in 11 Europa League matches in 2016/17!) and prosper there. If that happens, then all the better!

United have added an exciting player, but we shouldn’t expect him to be a savior. In fact, until we see how he adjusts to England, he’s very much an unproven player.