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Should Manchester United be worried about Bruno Fernandes’ decision-making?

The playmaker has come under some scrutiny for his shot selection and loss of possession

Norwich City v Manchester United - FA Cup: Quarter Final Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

The jury wasn’t convinced last summer. Rob Dawson of ESPN had reported that Manchester United’s recruitment team had concerns about Bruno Fernandes’ pass completion rate.

The Portuguese Magnifico has been given carte blanche to run the attack since his move in late January. His doughty spirit has had a pervasive influence throughout the club, nevermind the squad. However, the game on Saturday against Norwich City has resurfaced these doubts.

Perhaps, it was the 1 shot on target from 7 attempted (well below his 37.5% success rate in the league since joining United ) in a largely stiff performance from the entire team. Or was it the sanctification of the media – completely absolved from any blame unlike some of his peers.

It’s worth examining if hindering or toning Bruno down might be counter-productive. Is he any good if he isn’t this uncompromising version of himself? It’s what makes him such a unique player. Fernandes has a chequered history in terms of his development. He joined FC Infesta ( a small outfit in Portugal ) as a 7-year-old and his coach at the time, Sergio Marques, played him as a centre-back.

This might come as a surprise to many due to his slight stature, however, he continued playing in this role until the age of 15. Marques recently told FourFourTwo magazine, “Some may describe him now as a risk-taker, but I consider that trait to be just to be a strong belief in his own abilities.” This is peculiar considering centre-backs are not predisposed to such risks.

After moving to Italy two seasons later (2012-13), he appeared for Novara 22 times in a deeper central midfield role. His performances earned him a move to Udinese, where he was asked to play as a second-striker, an advanced midfielder, and a central midfielder. He scored 4 of his 6 goals and registered all 6 of his assists in the advanced role (all comps). Impressive, considering he was only 18.

This trend continued in the following season — now asked to sometimes occupy the left of midfield — and he registered 4 goals and 3 assists in all competitions. In his third and final year at Udinese, he was asked to play in a deeper central midfield role with the same number of goal contributions. He then moved to Sampdoria, where he registered 5 goals and 2 assists as an advanced midfielder. His expected goal data throughout this period was mostly in concurrence with his real output.

So what changed? There were a few spectacular goals within this small sample size but nothing to suggest such a proclivity for the same. There seemed to be a seismic shift when he moved to Lisbon. Tiago Estêvão, Portuguese football expert, analyst and scouting consultant, had covered Fernandes’ first season at Sporting CP for the Scouted Football magazine.

Here, he states how Bruno’s creative numbers shot up exponentially along with his success with shots from range. At the time of writing, 6 of his 13 goals came from outside the box. Characteristics that have since defined him and would inevitably lead him to Old Trafford.

Statistics are only as useful as the context in which they are applied. The possession lost statistic is infamous for being applied wrongly. The UtdArena Twitter account was quick to remind us of the same — posting the average possessions lost per game from some of Europe’s best creative players. The football community reacts differently — to some Andreas Pereira’s performance against Liverpool in the 1-1 draw was wasteful and to others, he was the only one trying things.

Estêvão has also written a piece on his medium blog defending long shots, which feature two other Manchester United stars in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. The fastidious nature of analytics demands the tiniest of gains. As Estêvão puts it — aesthetics aside — despite their low expected value, they could lead to rebounds and corner-kicks, which have great value.

Dietmar Hopp, who owns Bundesliga side TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, is also the co-founder of the enterprise software company SAP and has heavily invested in Data analytics and hired a young coach in Julian Nagelsmann, who would manage the side in conjunction with these tools. Nagelsmann also favors his side to control possession but his sides don’t always look the walk the ball in the net.

Most coaches who favor possession-based football resist long shots, but Nagelsmann’s sides have been a bit of an outlier. His Hoffenheim side scored 13 goals (the highest in that season) from outside the box in the 2016/17 league season and this trend has carried itself to his current Leipzig side. The Bundesliga website has provided a 3-minute video showcasing why they score so many long-range efforts and how they can exist in a possession and data-driven club.

Spacing and alternative options to the player in possession determine when a long shot is the best option and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players should ideally devise a cohesive structure that allows so many players with an inclination to shoot from a distance if they can’t stumble upon it.

Statsbomb’s Colin Trainor has also done a study using the dataset from 2011-13 Premier League seasons where he concluded that shooting from outside the box, despite it’s low expected goal value, was the joint-most effective option for the player in possession to take in such a situation — along with a forward central pass. This conclusion did not discriminate between the top-half teams and the bottom-half teams even though bottom-half teams had most to gain from this action. This study also accounts for the opposition scoring within 30 seconds of the initial shot.

It’s all fine while United continues on this unbeaten run but the inevitable bouts of frustration with Fernandes’ long shots and risky passes are already starting to seep through the fanbase. Scrutiny will be far more severe when all 3 points are dropped, and Fernandes has acknowledged as much in an interview with soccer bible only last week:

“For now everyone is really excited with me because the beginning was really nice. But I know, the first false step I give, everyone will come and say he’s not good enough for MUFC, he’s not the kind of player we need.”

Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It helps that United’s defensive unit has conceded few chances all season. The initial impression when observing Fernandes is high risk – high reward. Adjustments are natural and improvements will be made, along with some poor performances. It does seem passé to be shooting so often from range and attempting (seemingly ill-advised) ambitious passes, however, on a closer reading, the stats propose that there isn’t as high a risk. And in a game that relies more heavily than any other sport on one outcome, the potential rewards are far greater.

So while some of decision-making of the Reds’ new playmaker can can be a worry, United fans have nothing to fret over. We can let Bruno be Bruno.