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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Bruno Fernandes isn’t world class yet, but he can be

Bruno’s impact on the team is undeniable, but his decision-making still needs work

Manchester United v FC Kobenhavn - UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

When Manchester United signed Bruno Fernandes back in January I wrote that the Portuguese was a very good player, but not a savior. That article was about me being unsure if his skills would translate from the Portuguese league to the Premier League.

I was skeptical.

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.

Hand up. I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. There was quite literally no drop off from what Bruno was doing at Sporting to what he did at United.

I wasn’t completely wrong though. In that same piece I wrote this:

Bruno arrived in the midst of a hectic schedule with plenty of non-league games. In the Premier League, United won three of his first six games, and three of the five he played before the lockdown.

From a creative standpoint, Bruno did not actually improve United.

This isn’t a knock on Bruno. It just tells us how important Paul Pogba is to the team, and how much of United’s creativity comes from having a midfielder who can progress the ball. If you can’t get the ball to Bruno in dangerous areas, it’s hard for him to be effective.

He was though better than Andreas Pereira, though, and that quickly lead to a change in results. His set piece ability helped seal the Chelsea match and it won the Manchester Derby. As good as he was against Watford he didn’t do much to solve United’s problem of ‘what to do when things aren’t going United’s way.’ That’s not Bruno’s fault — that’d be a lot to put on one player — but he’s not blameless in that either.

Given the way United’s season went once Fernandes arrived, it’s not surprising that the narratives around him quickly took off with a mind of their own. The BBC threw him into their team of the year after just five games. He was being called the MVP in the Premier League.

A lot of fans also latched on to another term: world class.

That’s what we’re here to talk about today. Bruno Fernandes is not world class. Not yet at least.

But he can be. Oh boy can he be.

Bruno very nearly there; he’s got the skills, he’s a great passer, he’s fantastic defensively, has great energy, and oh boy can he shoot.

For Bruno, the one thing holding him back from truly being world class is his head.

It’s not that he’s not a smart player. Quite the contrary. He has tremendous football IQ. He’s very adept at picking up his teammates’ movements and quickly moving to cover for them. Watch how quickly he falls back when Fred pushes up to press against Chelsea.

And then when Fred gets back he seamlessly goes back to his position.

Or here when Luke Shaw pushes up with the ball, only to lose it. Watch how quickly Bruno realizes that when Shaw pushes up, Fred needs to cover for him, and he needs to cover for Fred. Only... he’s nowhere near where Fred even was and things went south pretty quickly.

Off the ball, Bruno is tremendous. Where he runs into trouble sometimes is on the ball, i.e., his decision making.

This comes to a head in his shooting and passing. Where Bruno needs to improve is his shot selection and pass selection: when to shoot, when to pass, which pass to play.

Shot Selection

We all know that Bruno loves to blast shots from outside the box. Twenty-nine of his 44 shots (65.91%) in the Premier League came from outside the box this season. That’s a mighty lot and explains why despite getting 3.04 shots per 90 his NPxG was just 2.94 (0.07 xG/shot).

He did score on three of those 29 shots from outside the box (10.34%) which is a far better return than you would expect. Then again, two of those shots were practically from inside the box, one of which came on a free kick.

Now, we’ve already talked about how not every shot from outside the box is bad, and that is true. That doesn’t exactly make them good either. What makes them good is what you do off of those shots.

For example, in a vacuum, this is a really poor shot from Bruno.

He’s far out, he doesn’t have a great angle, and there are five Sheffield United defenders back in position. The odds of him scoring on this are incredibly low and it’s not a surprise it’s blocked.

But, it’s taken in the 19th minute of a game where United were struggling to break down their opponents. Given that Fernandes has a reputation of being able to score from out there, if you take a shot from there that looks particularly dangerous, it’s only natural that defenders will closing you down to prevent you from getting that shot. When the defenders step out at you, that creates space.

Suddenly that shot isn’t so bad anymore, but that’s only if you use that space. Given that there’s 70 more minutes in the match, the chance to use that space is likely to come. If this was the 80th minute, it would be a poor shot selection.

That space would eventually come. When Bruno gets the ball at the top of the box just before halftime, Sheffield players go crazy to close him down. That creates a lot of movement and confusion amongst their defenders. It allows United to move the ball around, get into good positions, and put the ball in the net.

A similar thing happens against Bournemouth. Bruno gets the ball at the top of the box with room to bring it to the middle. When he does that, the Bournemouth defender knows that if he gets to the top of the box he’s now in a very dangerous position and he needs to close him down.

Seeing this, he steps up to cut Bruno off. However, by stepping up to cut off Bruno he leaves about a yard of space between him and Mason Greenwood.

That yard of space is all a player like Greenwood needs to hurt you.

Using the threat of your distance shooting to create better opportunities for your teammates, that is fantastic.

Where Bruno needs to improve is deciding when to shoot and when not to.

Take this shot against Tottenham.

No matter how you look at it, this is a terrible shot: 35-40 yards out, with no one in front of you. Hugo Lloris can see this all the way. You have no chance of beating him. You have Anthony Martial out wide, and you have Marcus Rashford making a run — play a ball to one of them and let them run at the defenders. Or just take it yourself — there’s loads of space in front of you — and make the defenders have to make a play.

At the end of the game he did this.

You’ve got Odion Ighalo making a good run into the box. You’ve got Rashford wide open right at the top of the box. Instead you shoot from 30 yards out on your weaker foot. That’s terrible.

Then there’s this against Copenhagen. Bruno loves to tee up from outside the box, he gets himself into a great shooting position here only to... not shoot?

Even if this ball does get through to Martial he wouldn’t be in as great of a shooting position as Bruno was when he passed the ball.

These are little things but they add up. In that Tottenham game United ended up dropping two points. Against Copenhagen they had to play an extra 30 minutes.

Shooting when you should pass, passing when you should shoot. It’s simple decision making. That’s where Bruno needs to improve.

Pass Selection

Bruno’s passing can be incredibly frustrating at times. Misplacing simple passes like these — which he has a tendency to do a few times a game — needs to be cut out.

He also can become careless when he gets tired. If you don’t have the energy to make the pass, don’t make it. It’s doing more harm than good.

Given that he was still doing things like that against Copenhagen, it’s not exactly something he improved on this season.

Let’s call a spade a spade here. Bruno’s 71.28 percent completed pass percentage is awful. In fact, it was the worst among all the ‘creative’ players in the league (Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Jack Grealish, James Maddison, Christian Pulisic, Todd Cantwell, Emilio Buendia, Wilfried Zaha, even Andreas Pereira and Daniel James were higher — you name ‘em, they’re higher than Fernandes).

If you ever bring this up about Bruno, you will always receive one of the following two similar but very different responses.

  1. That’s because he plays a lot of difficult passes.
  2. That’s because he plays a lot of risky passes.

Both things are true, and do account for the low percentage. The difference is that difficult passes aren’t bad. Risky passes are.

Every pass has three factors that go into it: risk, reward, and difficulty. How difficult is the pass, how risky is the pass, and what is the reward when the pass is completed (there’s a fancy new metric out there for this called ‘possession value’ but that’s complicated and not widely available). If the reward doesn’t significantly outweigh the risk, it’s not a pass worth making.

Here are some examples.

Early on against Copenhagen, Bruno tries a ridiculous half volley to try and play in Greenwood.

While this looks ridiculous and careless, it’s not bad (the ball goes out for a throw so United don’t even lose possession).

The degree of difficulty on this is high — hence why he doesn’t pull it off. The reward is also high: if he does pull it off, he’s got Greenwood in behind the defense with Rashford breaking to the middle. The risk though is very low. If this pass doesn’t work what happens? At worst, Copenhagen have the ball deep in their own territory.

It’s high difficulty, but its low risk/high reward.

Another one against Bournemouth. Bruno makes a great play to create space. His final ball doesn’t pick out Rashford.

It’s not an easy pass because crosses are inherently not easy, but if he completes it Rashford’s got a great chance to score. Moderate difficulty, but low risk and very high reward.

In the space of about a minute against Crystal Palace we saw both ends of the spectrum of this.

First, there was this attempted through ball from Fernandes that didn’t get through.

This is very similar to what he was trying to do against Copenhagen. It’s by no means easy, but if it works, he’s got Greenwood in behind the defense with Rashford and Martial making runs towards the net. When it doesn’t work, Palace have the ball in their own half. Seeing as United only have three players level or ahead of Bruno, not only are they well covered after the turnover but trying the really difficult and low percentage pass was probably the smart play to begin with. High difficulty, low risk, high reward.

A minute later the pendulum swings back the other way. With two options ahead of him, Bruno picks out the wrong one. The very wrong one.

Bruno gets the ball with a chance to break. He looks up and sees Martial sprinting ahead and that’s the ball he’ll eventually play (red arrow). However, this is not an easy pass by any means, especially since Palace have a player directly blocking the passing lane. Off to the right, he has a far easier pass (yellow arrow) to a breaking Marcus Rashford.

Here’s what Bruno sees when he makes this pass. Martial running straight with Palace only having two defenders back. This is a very difficult pass and if it’s completed both centerbacks will converge on Martial (red arrows). If Martial gets the ball, he’d still have to get by two defenders. Thus, unless that ball rolls through all three players and isn’t overhit so that the goalkeeper can get it, the reward of the pass being completed is low.

Over on the right (yellow arrows) is Rashford. There’s no one in between Bruno and Rashford making the pass very easy. Rashford is in acres of space, and if he were to get the ball, one of the last remaining defenders would have to come over to him. That would leave Martial now running one on one with the last defender, and a through ball from Rashford would be simple and highly advantages.

Instead, Bruno opts to go for Martial. United are looking to break so their players are bombing forward. Palace don’t have anyone back, which means they do have men forward. Given there’s a player between Martial and Bruno it makes the pass high difficulty, low reward, and very high risk.

It never should have been made, and when it didn’t work it didn’t take Palace long to put the ball in the back of United’s net. United were only bailed out by a questionable VAR decision.

Every ball has a risk/reward ratio. When picking out a pass you have to become good at only playing the difficult or risky passes when the reward far outweighs the risk.

Decision making is what’s currently separating Bruno from being world class or not. He’s got the talent, he’s got the instincts, all that’s left now is consistently making the right decisions. If he improves on that, it’s scary how good he can become.