Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday afternoon was a quintessential Bruno Fernandes performance. The Portugal international scored the winning goal while also becoming embroiled in several on-pitch arguments. Fernandes remonstrated wildly in an exchange with Casemiro. He also chastised Jadon Sancho before appearing to be told to “stop moaning” by the winger.
Bruno Fernandes is a problem. Whether that be for opposition defenders powerless to stop his improvisational brilliance or for those who find themselves in his path of rage. Referees, opponents and teammates are all potential targets for Bruno’s verbal wrath. When things aren’t going well, it is a trait that has caused an outsized level of criticism.
Last season as United’s campaign crumbled under the risible Ralf Rangnick, Fernandes was placed squarely in the firing line. Pundits like Graeme Souness and Roy Keane broke new ground for the practice of hypocrisy while digging out the player. The fact the pair could sit, straight-faced and bemoan a player criticising his teammates and haranguing referees beggared belief. But from atop their piles of medals they felt they could drag Fernandes because, unlike their moaning, his didn’t beget silverware.
Well that argument is moot, with Fernandes and United having lifted the Carabao Cup this season. While nobody is comparing a single trophy to the embarrassment of riches Keane and Souness can boast, it is a step in the right direction. The fact United have reached the FA Cup final is another. Not only have the Red Devils shown signs of a resurgence this season but they have done so with the oft-criticised Fernandes front and centre.
Erik ten Hag could easily have filed Fernandes away with United’s problem children when he took over in the summer. Fans and pundits had often lumped the midfielder in with Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard as talented individuals who lacked the requisite attitude. However, while the new manager was happy to wave goodbye to that pair, he took a very different approach with Bruno.
Rather than shun the emotional, high-maintenance midfielder, Ten Hag has built the team around him. Not since he first emerged under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has Fernandes been so central to United’s fortunes. He has rewarded the faith by producing his best football since that incredible initial form under the Norwegian.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing of course. Things at Old Trafford rarely have been since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Fernandes was subjected to absolute pelters for appearing to throw the towel in during the 7-0 drubbing by Liverpool. It was Bruno’s darkest moment in a United shirt for sure. But, rather than evidence Fernandes doesn’t care, it read more like a player caring too much and shutting down due to humiliation. There is a difference between laziness and excessive emotion. Given how keenly Fernandes feels the pulse of victory and the bitter sting of defeat, this felt like the latter.
Fernandes harangues his teammates not out of self-centred arrogance. Rather, his admonishments come out of a pride in his team’s performances and a desire to win. It is a desire Casemiro shares. The pair have enjoyed some public sparring sessions this season but, as with Sunday’s histrionics, they usually end with a hug. Given the fact both men are enjoying superb seasons, the friction works.
The phoney war with Sancho was interesting to see too. The winger has been accused of lacking desire and shrinking into himself in United red. Seeing the ex-Borussia Dortmund man sticking up for himself was a promising sign. Sancho has needed a fire lit under him. While he would have found Fernandes’ critiques annoying in the moment, they appear to be having the desired effect.
Fernandes will never be the sort of quietly lionised “model professional” type that James Milner is or Michael Carrick used to be. Some players come along to steer the apple cart and some come to tip it over. Fernandes will rub people up the wrong way, like Keane and Souness before him. That pair may be loath to admit it, but Fernandes’ hot-headed streak isn’t stopping him from becoming a serial winner. It’s turning him into one.
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