It has been a rollercoaster ride for Bruno Fernandes and Manchester United since the Portuguese maestro first arrived at Old Trafford exactly two years ago.
The saga had started in the summer of 2019 when United were impressed by a late bloomer that had scored 33 goals from midfield for Sporting CP the season prior. However, speculation in Portugal about a deal went into overdrive and quickly became detached from reality.
Manchester City had also enquired but weren’t prepared to pay what Sporting were asking. Once United pulled out of the race without getting particularly near an agreement, Tottenham were the most likely to make it happen and Fernandes himself later admitted he was ‘close’ to joining Spurs.
It was only failure to agree a fee with Sporting that saw that proposed deal fall through.
Fernandes, although disappointed not to seal a dream move to the Premier League then, largely carried on where he’d previously left off as he began the 2019/20 season in Lisbon.
When the inevitable United speculation resurfaced in January, the club seemed to distance themselves from it. But manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed personally invested in bringing Fernandes to Old Trafford, so he went to watch him play for Sporting in mid-January.
Several times it was reported that a visibly emotional Fernandes had played his last game for the Lions. But United were encountering the same difficulties that Spurs had, with Sporting’s demands and growing valuation looking as though it would make an agreement impossible.
As the transfer deadline neared, a compromise was eventually struck at an initial €55m (£47m) plus another €25m in add-ons. The add-ons made the overall deal worth €80m, matching what Sporting were asking for, although it was reported that United considered the extras unlikely to be triggered.
With the transfer announced on 29 January, Fernandes proceeded to make his debut on 1 February as United played Wolves at Old Trafford. The game finished 0-0, but Solskjaer’s side had lost three of the previous four Premier League games – eight of their 24 in total – and there was a palpable and immediate uplift in atmosphere inside the stadium and in the team’s performance.
Even the most optimistic United fans couldn’t have expected what Fernandes did next. He started every remaining Premier League game and finished the season with 15 direct goal contributions in 14 league appearances. The club also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and Europa League.
It is already easy to forget that the season was put on hold for three months as the coronavirus pandemic took its initial grip of the world. Players were locked down at home like everyone else for weeks on end and it would have been understandable for Fernandes, in a new country with his young family, separated from his friends and other family members back home, to struggle.
But he barely skipped a beat as ‘Project Restart’ got underway in the summer of 2020 and remarkably carried on that sensational form in the 2020/21 season.
Cynics and critics expected his insane goalscoring to at least significantly slow and nothing of the sort happened. He earned an unfair reputation for stat padding through penalties, but it is important to note that United were a far more fluid and creative team due to his presence that made spot-kicks all the more likely. Before Fernandes came along, a string of United players, including Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford had also developed a frustrating habit of missing from 12 yards.
Without Fernandes, United were struggling to keep pace with the top four. With him, they finished third in 2019/20, going unbeaten in the Premier League after he arrived, and improved to second in 2020/21. Liverpool of course fell away, but United crucially added eight points to their own tally from the previous campaign and the main reason for improvement was the Portuguese.
During his first full season in England, Fernandes scored 28 goals in all competitions and provided a further 17 assists – 45 direct goal contributions in 58 appearances. His personal tally matched Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 28 in 2016/17 and is by far the most any United midfielder has scored in a single season across all competitions in the modern post-1992 era.
Fernandes’ 58 appearances, which included 51 starts, is the most by a United player in a single season since Ryan Giggs played 59 times way back in 2002/03. It showed a dependability and remarkable level of durability to boot at a time when United most needed that kind of driving force.
During the 2020/21 season, Fernandes quickly became vice-captain and improved the performances of those around him because he was so demanding. If he was ever substituted during a game, which was rare, he was always annoyed because he was so desperate to play. That mentality was widely praised because so often it in the post-Ferguson era United players have looked indifferent.
But where 2020/21 was enough to establish him as world class, 2021/22 has been a struggle. If anything, it could be put down to some sort of second season syndrome. Even though it is his third overall, the first two effectively flowed into each other because of Covid-19 workarounds.
Fernandes started this season well, getting a hat-trick on the opening day, but his revolutionary catalyst-type impact wore off. He has had his first off-spell in perhaps four or even five years, although certainly wasn’t the only one in a United shirt playing poorly in the autumn.
United legend Gary Neville lumped Fernandes in with Cristiano Ronaldo when he criticised the squad’s biggest stars for being ‘whinge bags’ in December when things weren’t going their way. That was after Solskjaer had been sacked and Ralf Rangnick was a good few weeks into the job.
Ultimately, two years on from that protracted transfer saga with Sporting, United are better off for having Fernandes at the club. He showed in spectacular fashion over the first 18 months what he is capable of, which was already a continuation of his form in Portugal.
Six months of inconsistent performances from an individual who couldn’t previously put a foot wrong does not make him a bad player or not worth having, especially at a time when frustrations and low morale were spilling over in a squad taken as far as it could go under the previous regime.
Now, with signs of improvement coming as Rangnick begins to more and more introduce players to his style of play and way of thinking, Fernandes and others have started to pick up once more.
He is still way short of his 2020/21 peak but has the capability of getting back there and will be a crucial part of any progression and success that comes United’s way in the next few years.