Calm down. This isn’t a post asking if Bruno Fernandes deserves to be on the pitch or not. He’s Manchester United’s best player, and he’s the first name on the team sheet.
But what does that phrase actually mean? Filling out a team sheet isn’t as simple as writing down the names of your best 11 players — or writing the down the names of your best player at each of the 11 positions. Football is about balance. When something tips the scales in one direction you need something else to balance it out.
Thus, your starting XI is actually a puzzle. The first name on the team sheet is the foundation. That’s the piece you’re going to build around. What system is best for this player? Which other players compliment him the best? Are there other players that are less compatible that will need to miss out?
Which brings us back to Bruno Fernandes. He’s the first name on the team sheet, but where does he best fit? Once you settle on that, you can then round out the rest of the team.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to play a 4-2-3-1, so the options are pretty clear. Bruno can either play in the no. 10 role or in a deeper midfield position.
This is the part where you tell me the answer is obvious. He’s been playing as the no. 10 since he got here in January, and with 31 goal involvements in 33 games he’s been damn good there.
Except, as always, it’s slightly more complicated than that.
Strip out the penalties (we’ll leave in the penalties that he won himself) and we’re looking at nine goals and 13 assists. Still very good numbers, but he could be better. Only four of his goals have come from inside the box, and only 22 of the 64 shots he’s taken in the Premier League (34%) have come from inside the box.
You want your number 10 to be in and around the box, creating chances but also being a goal threat himself. You want him making those late lurking runs into the box that are so hard for defenders to pick up.
Bruno is a number 10 who doesn’t exactly play like a number 10. He doesn’t get into the box much. Last season he took just 3.11 touches in the box per 90. That’s significantly behind most other number 10s in the league (Mason Mount 4.61, Dele Alli 4.68, Jack Grealish 3.87, Todd Cantwell(!) 3.29). Kevin de Bruyne in his deeper (but free-er) free-8 role had 4.90 — though there’s definitely a Manchester City factor there. Even Jesse Lingard (3.65) and Andreas Pereira (3.76) got into the box more than Bruno.
The players in Europe who averaged around 3.11 touches in the box per 90? Ashley Young (3.18), Ricardo Pereyra (3.11) Bukayo Saka (3.13), Marcelo (3.13) — those are fullbacks!
Last week I wrote about Solskjaer needing to find the balance between attacking freedom and structure. No player encompasses that more than Bruno Fernandes.
Fernandes is a player who loves to freely move around the pitch. He thrives with that freedom, it’s part of what makes him really great. Except when he’s moving around too much.
Fernandes loves to drop deep, collect the ball in midfield and help progress it. That’s great, but you also run into some problems when it happens.
For starters, what happens Bruno drops deep to get the ball but United hoof it down field? Now he’s got to run all the way back up the pitch to take up his position defensively.
That’s a lot of extra and rather unnecessary running. That’s not something you want you want your star player doing over the course of a game, especially in a condensed season that’s going to wear him out. Work smarter, not harder.
The other problem is naturally if Bruno drops deep to get the ball he’s not up the field receiving the ball. You want him to have the ball in dangerous areas so he can make the biggest impact. Furthermore, if you’re dropping deep into midfield, there’s one fewer person up the pitch to progress the ball to.
United are built around having a creative number 10. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood are not the type of players who excel at creating their own shots. United need a creative player up and near the box to set them up. If Bruno isn’t up there to create, they’re going to struggle.
This season Bruno has been dropping much deeper on the pitch to get the ball. Part of that has been that United’s shaky defense has necessitated him dropping a little deeper. Just look at where his percentage of touches have come from compared to last year.
United are running through Bruno even more than they did last season, but it’s coming from much deeper on the pitch. As a result his progression numbers are way up compared to last year (7.59 progressive passes per 90 to 9.17) but at a cost. United aren’t scoring. United aren’t creating.
Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood have combined for two Premier League goals so far. Both goals are courtesy of Rashford and both were assisted by Bruno himself, but guess where Bruno was when he made those assists? In his own third! Playing Rashford in behind the defense.
Bruno may be progressing and advancing the ball very well, but without someone like him being on the receiving end of those passes his progressions aren’t turning into shots. His xG Buildup per 90 this season is a paltry 0.12. His xG Chain per 90 is a bit better at 0.44, but take out the two Rashford goals and it falls to a much worse 0.30.
Take a look at his heat map against Istanbul.
He’s basically playing as a number 8. He’s good at that role, but not when he’s supposed to be the number 10. There is a noticeable lack of action around the Istanbul box and it’s not a coincidence that United struggled to create an attack.
Giving Bruno too much freedom can be incredibly frustrating at times and Solskjaer shared that sentiment after United’s win over Everton, telling MUTV:
“Great performance. Of course leading the boys, there’s desire and determination. He’s everywhere on the pitch! Sometimes that frustrates me, because sometimes there’s passes being played where he should have been and he’s not there.”
He’s got a point. Especially when you look at Bruno’s touch map against Everton.
Fernandes took only two touches in Everton’s box. This was the first one.
And this was the second one.
He also took one touch inside the semicircle at the top of the box. That was his pass to Cavani that was promptly put in the back of the net.
Three touches, three goals. It’s no wonder Ole wants you in and around the box, dude. You’re really effective there!
Thus the need to find some balance. You want Bruno to be able to move freely around the pitch but you also really want him to stay in his position and be near the box. Near the box is where he can do creative things like this. It’s where he’s going to have the biggest impact on the game.
Part of the reason Bruno constantly drops deep is because Fred and Scott McTominay struggle to advance the ball on their own.
Barring a dramatic increase in ability from McTominay and Fred — McTominay is improving but he’s not there yet — eventually Solskjaer will realize that as a pair, they can’t be relied on game in game out during a Premier League season. They don’t provide enough in attack.
The two have started 16 Premier League matches together with United winning just seven of them (43.75%). United have only scored 12 non-penalty goals (0.75) while the two of them are on the pitch. They’re just not creative.
As long as they’re playing, Bruno is going to continue to drop deep, leaving a big hole up front. Playing Juan Mata has helped alleviate that to a degree, but it can be hit or miss. He was good against Newcastle and Everton, but largely ineffective against Chelsea. Plus Mata is a once a week player (at most) and who knows how much longer he’ll be effective for.
Or perhaps Bruno is just more comfortable playing deeper on the pitch away from the box. That’s fine too. If that’s the case, play him there! He’s really good in that role.
At Sporting, Bruno operated mostly on the right of a three or in a two man pivot. He plays a deeper role for Portugal as well. If you’re worried that he gives the ball away too much and now he’ll be giving it away in more dangerous areas, it shouldn’t be an issue. When he plays deeper, he doesn’t have a problem retaining the ball. He’s a smart player.
Bruno Fernandes’ pass retention + chances created for Portugal:— UtdArena (@utdarena) October 15, 2020
51/59 (86.4%) vs Croatia (7)
71/84 (84.5%) vs Sweden (3)
50/62 (80.6%) vs France (2)
31/35 (88.6%) vs Portugal (3)
✓ RCM in a 4-3-3
✓ high retention
✓ high quantity of chances
✓ patient build-up involvement pic.twitter.com/7uqY7qhhnA
Playing him in that deeper role will allow him to orchestrate from afar like he loves to do. He’ll still be able to spray passes all over the pitch. He’ll still be able to launch counter attacks with one touch. He’ll still be able to gather the ball and fly up the pitch to create goals like this.
More importantly, now Bruno will be able to operate where he wants but United could put someone further ahead of him. Paul Pogba loves getting into the box and he’s tremendous once inside it. Donny van de Beek excels at finding spaces to receive line breaking passes. With one of them up the field you’ll be able to have the creative outlet near your forwards that you need, along with a midfielder who can get the ball to them.
United need Bruno to stay in his position. Not rigidly, but more than he currently is. But before he can do that they need to figure out which position that is.
Following Portugal’s match against France, Bruno himself spoke on the matter. He said he’ll probably drop deeper as his career progresses but right now he likes playing as the number 10.
Bruno Fernandes: "I think my career will be a little bit like this [Andrea Pirlo starting as a no.10 & moving to a no.6]! I hope not, because I prefer to play as a no.10, but every coach I’ve had in the past, they’ve all said the same – you will be a great no.6." #mulive [mu]— utdreport (@utdreport) November 15, 2020
In theory that should solve it. But if Bruno wants to play as the number 10, then he needs to play like a number 10! He’s clearly really effective there, but he can only be effective there if...he’s actually there! If he wants to play deeper, then have him play deeper and have someone else playing further forward! United need someone to be consistently in that advanced position.
It all comes down to balance. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to figure out the balance between how much freedom Bruno has, and how much he needs him to stay higher up the pitch.
The manager has to make a decision and from there Bruno needs to stick to that decision. Because right now — with three wins from seven games — this “kind of playing one position but also kind of playing the other” thing isn’t exactly working. Bruno can be better, and so can United.