Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was adamant. The title race is not over. “No one will give it away this early,” he said. But one season of sorts has finished. Bruno Fernandes has now played a complete campaign for Manchester United, albeit spread over two seasons. Thirty-eight games have produced 38 goals: 22 scored by the Portuguese, 16 assisted by him.
He brought up the landmark with a second memorable goal in as many weeks: after the Cantona-esque chip against Everton came a hooked volley against West Bromwich Albion, just after the 10th anniversary of Wayne Rooney’s spectacular shinned effort in a Manchester derby. “Fantastic technique,” marvelled Solskjaer.
Fernandes has been swift to establish himself as a player in United’s truest traditions. He has been quick to displace those who were established long before his arrival. He only has two fewer goals for United than Jesse Lingard, five fewer than Paul Pogba. One could be caught within a week, another inside a month. He has Carlos Tevez and Andrei Kanchelskis, flair players in fabulous sides, in his sights.
And yet, for the second successive league game, a piece of Fernandes magic only brought a point. There is an enduring question if United are so reliant on him that they are the closest thing to a one-man team at elite level; if Manchester City are, and Liverpool, have been, triumphs of systems and philosophies and coaching, United’s revival has come from giving it to Bruno.
If so, it has proved a productive policy. His was a goal out of nothing; certainly one out of keeping with their first-half performance. The downsides of their Brunodependencia were summed up in injury time when the Portuguese let fly from at least 30 yards. To call it a half-chance might be generous, and Sam Johnstone saved comfortably. Yet a willingness to attempt the audacious explains those goals against Albion and Everton. Fernandes is a triumph of confidence as well as of execution. Those high tallies of goals and assists come because he does not play the percentages; unless, that is, he operates on the principle that always trying to make something happen, coupled with his talent, means that while he often gives the ball away, he will succeed on an acceptable percentage of times. If so, that calculation has been justified.
Another number stood out at the Hawthorns: 102 touches, his third most in a United shirt, more than either central midfielder. It is a remarkable level of involvement for a No 10, but illustrates the way United look for him first.
A season can feel a broader battle, of collectivism versus individualism, with the half-way house of Tottenham’s double act of Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane. And, at the Hawthorns, United’s other attacking individuals underperformed. Solskjaer objected to a question about Anthony Martial – “form is sometimes temporary but class is permanent,” he said – but the Frenchman is in poor form. Marcus Rashford was unusually ineffective. Edinson Cavani was starved of service. Fernandes apart, United’s most effective players in the Albion half were Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw.
The 1-1 draw bucked a couple of trends. This was the eighth time United had come from behind on the road, but they had won the first seven. Fernandes has been the constant in the comebacks, the king of them. And since his arrival, he has made United better at winning the supposedly winnable games.
Solskjaer’s side had been scourges of the best who were undermined by a habit of struggling against the rest. Fernandes rendered them more consistent against the lesser lights. Yet now United have lost to Sheffield United and drawn with West Brom in the space of five games. In Fernandes, they have the division’s second top scorer, but they are an increasingly distant second in the table.
A season’s worth of Fernandes has brought 78 points, and it is an indication of his impact that United only took 50 from the 38 before that. He has been a catalyst for a 28-point improvement. But even in this season, that is unlikely to be a title-winning total. Individual inspiration has carried United a long way but there can be a limit to how much singular brilliance can accomplish in a team game.