Manchester United completed the signing of Bruno Fernandes on 29 January 2020 and no one could have legitimately predicted the impact he would have at Old Trafford.
One year into his United career, Fernandes has put up truly ridiculous numbers and acted as a catalyst for a developing squad that looked lost and devoid of ideas going forward before he arrived.
The best players make teammates around them perform better and aside from 45 goals and assists in 52 appearances in a United shirt over the space of just 12 months, the Portugal international has restored confidence in players like Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Fred and others.
United actually passed on Fernandes in the summer of 2019, with scouts concluding that he was too loose in possession and gave the ball away too often, potentially making him a liability in the fast-paced world of English football. He was even ready to join Tottenham instead, only for the Londoners to ultimately fail to agree an acceptable price with Sporting CP.
Yet after a dreadful first half of the season that saw Solskjaer’s team fire blanks against West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Watford, as well as drop points against Crystal Palace, Southampton, Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Everton, it was clear United needed a lift in January.
Fernandes was still available and was proving that his 2018/19 breakout season with Sporting was no fluke. He had been strong when he first moved back to Portugal from Italy in 2017, but in 18 months from the summer of 2018 until he signed with United, he scored 47 goals from midfield, a record most strikers would be jealous of, and bagged 14 assists.
The negotiations with Sporting were long and drawn out and it was reported as though Fernandes had ‘bid an emotional farewell’ to fans in Lisbon at the end of virtually every game he played throughout December and January.
Eventually, a deal worth an initial £47m plus £21m in add-ons was finalised two days before the transfer deadline. United had their man. He chose the number 18 shirt made famous by Paul Scholes and said all the right things when he arrived about how he had followed the club since childhood because of Cristiano Ronaldo and was already well aware of the rich history and legends.
But there were still a lot of questions to be answered. The fact that United had signed anyone when they were so desperate, combined with goals and skills compilations on YouTube highlighting only his best bits, inflated the hype to insane levels before a ball was kicked.
Even if he was to come good in the long-term, it was a legitimate concern that it might take Fernandes time to settle at Old Trafford, as indeed is often the case for most new signings – especially those arriving from abroad into a brand new and alien environment.
Would he be able to replicate his Sporting numbers at a higher level in the Premier League? There are obviously plenty of success stories from the Primeira Liga to England. But he certainly wouldn’t have been the first import from Portuguese football to struggle – Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Hugo Viana, Eliaquim Mangala, Islam Slimani or even United’s own Victor Lindelof.
Fernandes was a late bloomer who had been passed over by Portugal’s ‘Big Three’ as a youngster and had taken the unusual step of starting his professional career in Italy with Serie B club Novara. He later joined Udinese and Sampdoria, but he scored relatively few goals and it was only after moving back to Portugal, dropping out of a top five European league, that his numbers went up.
It really wasn’t unreasonable to at least wonder if he might struggle, certainly early on.
Still, United were hoping that Fernandes would be an improvement. Given that his greatest competition was Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, the bar wasn’t set especially high, but the level of impact he had almost straight away and continues to have 12 months on was unimaginable.
Anyone who tells you now that they expected him to be as good as he has been is straight up lying.
Fernandes joined a team that was struggling to put together back-to-back wins and was struggling to even break into the Premier League. Now, they are genuinely in the Premier League title race and he is more or less the sole difference between the current side and the one started the 2019/20 season.
One of the biggest criticisms aimed at Fernandes, who was selected by 90min as one of the five best attacking midfielders in the world at the start of 2021, is that he is guilty of stat-padding with penalties. The reality is that scoring penalties is a skill that few players actually master and before he came along, United had no set taker were regularly missing them. It doesn’t take away from his game that he converts from the spot, it actually adds to it significantly because his team wins.
Manchester United now and the Manchester United that started 2020 are completely different beasts for the better…and one player is the reason for that.