Bruno Fernandes' impact at Man United: How the January signing revived a struggling team
Rob Dawson | Correspondent
It was in the away dressing room at Goodison Park that Bruno Fernandes confirmed to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the rest of Manchester United's coaching staff that he is the right fit for the Norwegian's Old Trafford revolution.
Fernandes had scored with a stunning long-range effort to earn a 1-1 draw with Everton but after the final whistle, his trademark toothy grin was missing. Instead, he sat on a wooden bench, quietly seething. While many of the traveling United supporters were already well on their way back to Manchester and relatively satisfied with a point away from home at one of the Premier League's in-form teams, it was not good enough for Fernandes. Speaking afterwards, he said his teammates should be "mad" at the result.
It is the attitude Solskjaer is trying to develop in his new-look squad. New signings often have to be told that draws away from home, things typically celebrated at other clubs, are not good enough for United. Michael Carrick, who arrived from Tottenham in 2006, was one. Fernandes, though, did not need telling.
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The club's recruitment department had been aware of Fernandes' talent for some time. A favourite of former United head scout Javier Ribalta, the attacking midfielder had been on the club's radar since 2017. His numbers last season for Sporting CP -- 33 goals in 53 games -- turned curiosity into hardened interest this past summer and five months later, in January, United got their man.
As with so many transfers for United in recent windows, the deal was difficult to complete. Solskjaer was keen last summer but by the end of the transfer window, United had taken the unusual step of ruling out an agreement with Sporting CP. Privately, they said they'd become "irritated" by the volume of reports in Portugal that they believed were designed to put pressure on the club to act. Tottenham came closest to signing Fernandes that summer, engaging with tangible talks over the transfer despite being unable to agree a fee.
Even in January, there was a point when the transfer looked dead. Sporting CP officials met with Ed Woodward and Matt Judge at the club's London offices in Mayfair and made it clear they would not accept less than a guaranteed payment of €65 million with another €15 million in add-ons. Requests for United players, either Andreas Pereira or Marcos Rojo, to join Sporting CP were briefly discussed before being dismissed. It wasn't until four days before the deadline that a breakthrough was made. United could end up having to pay €80 million with add-ons but for that to happen, Fernandes would have to become a Ballon d'Or contender and in that scenario, Woodward and Solskjaer would consider it money well spent.
When news broke about the possibility of Fernandes joining Man United, those in Solskjaer's squad who did not know much about Fernandes asked his Portugal teammate, Diogo Dalot, for a run down. "He is the best player in Portugal," was the standard reply. It took one training session the day before his debut against Wolves on Feb. 1 for them to understand what Dalot was talking about. His confidence on the ball, even on his first day with a new club, stood out. Still, it is his character that has most impressed Solskjaer.
"I saw what he can do on the pitch but also his leadership qualities," said the United manager.
"If you do your due diligence and speak to people who know his personality, you would hope he'd have this influence but you can't be 100 percent sure. Some players take six months [to settle] but the point was get him in because of the quality. He relishes it, loves being around the place, gives everyone a boost and has an aura."
Solskjaer was keen to push the boat out to sign Harry Maguire in the summer as much for the leadership he could offer a young group as his ability on the pitch, and he had the same urgency when it came to recruiting Fernandes. It did not go unnoticed that even during periods of intense speculation about his future at Sporting Lisbon, his performance level did not drop. After making his United debut in that 0-0 draw with Wolves at Old Trafford, he was advised that he did not have to give any post-match interviews. Instead, he insisted on speaking to Portuguese TV to explain the result.
Substituted during the 3-0 win over Watford on Feb. 23, he was told by Solskjaer to go inside to keep warm but rather than follow the order, he asked to watch the rest of the game from the bench so he could learn more about his new team.
His football intelligence and tactical knowledge has already been put to good use by Solskjaer, who asked Fernandes for a report on United's upcoming Europa League opponents, LASK Linz, after they faced Sporting Lisbon in the group stages. It should be no surprise, either, that Fernandes scored in a 2-1 win in Lisbon. He's already got three goals for United in just five games.
It's too early to know exactly how Fernandes will fare for United in the long term but in the past month, he has already transformed the team. Once stale, things are now happening, most of them around Fernandes, and the energy around the squad is returning. Even at this early stage, he has taken a lot of the creative responsibility onto his shoulders and in just four league games has already had 16 shots. Invention, imagination and goals from midfield are all things United have missed on the pitch in the first part of the season. But for Solskjaer, his influence off it could be even more valuable.