How Bruno Fernandes became Manchester United's world class leader

Bruno Fernandes finished 3rd in the attacking midfielders list for W2WC21
Bruno Fernandes finished 3rd in the attacking midfielders list for W2WC21 / 90min

This article is part of 90min's Welcome to World Class series.

The weight of expectation is a heavy load for Manchester United players to carry, but some rise to the challenge more naturally than others.

Eric Cantona paved the way under Sir Alex Ferguson, showing how a single individual can be the missing piece of a team with the biggest ambitions.

It's almost two years since Bruno Fernandes swapped the green of Sporting CP for the red of United, and the Portuguese maverick has elevated his status, much like Cantona, from minor-league talent to world-class operator.

The attacking midfielder arrived at Old Trafford with his new club at a confused and low ebb, but within 18 months, Fernandes led United to a second-place finish in the Premier League and a Europa League final. As we know, the wheels fell off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's project this term, with the Norwegian legend departing the club, but United's squad is in a much healthier position than it was when Fernandes signed for £47m.

Despite Harry Maguire wearing the captain's armband, Fernandes is the de facto leader of the United dressing room. The 27-year-old's numbers have been the most important factor in the Red Devils' continued rebuilding over the past year.

In the opening 11 months of 2021, Fernandes had recorded 18 goals and 17 assists in 54 games, ranking him as one of Europe's most productive players. This outweighed Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling's individual contributions for Premier League champions Manchester City, and dwarfs the goal involvements created by the £100m Jack Grealish at both Aston Villa and his new club combined.

It might be fair to say Fernandes' achievements at United have been greatly underestimated.

Despite United's sudden drop in standard this season, Fernandes remains England's most efficient creator. Liverpool are back to their best after a campaign to forget last year, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah in tremendous form. Yet Fernandes continues to usurp both as the Premier League's most creative player.

The challenge now for Fernandes is to find a way to lead United back to silverware. Ralf Ragnick's arrival at the Theatre of Dreams has brought new optimism about the team's tactical capabilities. In addition, Fernandes has the creative talents of Jadon Sancho next to him, as well as one of the greatest forwards of all time ahead of him on the pitch.

There is doubt about the chemistry between Bruno and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the compatriots now have an acute tactical coach to help them find a winning formula. We will soon see if the previous United manager had a negative effect on his two biggest players.

Many football fans believe Fernandes is experiencing his most difficult patch of form in red this term, but five goals and eight assists suggests the player is just getting warmed up before the Christmas festivities get underway - Covid-19 pending, of course. It is still early in the season, and Fernandes and United have plenty of time to achieve their primary goals after Solskjaer's exit.

Rangnick's preference of 4-2-2-2 or 4-3-3 should further unlock Fernandes, allowing him to play higher up the field in a pressing style that suits his all-action demeanour. United are back in contention for the top four in the league, and the knockout competitions of the Champions League and FA Cup could yet deliver the trophies United supporters crave. If successful, it will be Fernandes leading from the front as the fulcrum of Rangnick's favoured methodology.

If Fernandes can integrate his undoubted world-class talent with the abilities of Sancho and Ronaldo, United have every chance of catching their biggest rivals in 2022. The task is a big one, but Fernandes is a force of nature when at the top of his game. Even with Ronaldo present, he's United's most important character, much like Cantona once was.

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