“The first thing I would do is take the captaincy off him,” former Manchester United skipper Roy Keane said after the recent Manchester derby. “I know it’s a big decision but Fernandes is not captain material. He’s a talented player, but what I saw today – he’s whingeing, he’s moaning, he’s throwing his arms up in the air constantly – it really isn’t acceptable. When you’re talking about where do they make changes – board level, managers – I’d start with that because the manager is capable of doing that. Fernandes is a brilliant footballer but he’s the opposite to what you want in a captain.”
Maybe all of that is true. But he also has a real knack for scoring big goals and saving his team when they need it. He did it again on Saturday, scoring the lone-goal deep into second-half stoppage time to secure a much-needed win over Fulham. Fernandes’ strike may have papered over his team’s continuing ineptitude in front of goal, but it also lifted spirits and pressure by snapping an ugly two-match losing streak during which United shipped 6 goals, scored 0 and crashed out of the League Cup.
Unsurprisingly, Erik ten Hag, whose seat has become a lot hotter as a result of the poor start, as well as reports that minority owner-in-waiting Jim Ratcliffe (who will have control of football operations if the move goes through) could be looking at new managerial candidates, has defended his captain.
“From the moment I made him captain he did this [win games],” Ten Hag said during after the Fulham match. “He is giving energy and setting the example. And you see the way he is pressing, the way he is counter pressing. The way he makes recovery runs. He is absolutely the example and he is taking responsibility all the time. On and off the pitch. He takes responsibility by scoring important goals but also in how he is always wanting the ball and always wanting to create. I’m happy with my captain.”
Fernandes’ faults are obvious (beyond the body language stuff, which I’ve never put much stock into – Cristiano Ronaldo always looked like he was going to throw a tantrum and no one ever questioned his leadership credentials). He gives the ball away too much. He’s not good against the press. He tries too many flicks and backheels when he’s under pressure, which result in cheap turnovers. He can drift in and out of games — especially against quality opposition.
But in a season where United have relied on moments of individual brilliance (and possibly help from the great beyond) to get them results, Fernandes is the ultimate x-factor. Capable of picking out a brilliant pass or scoring a beautiful goal out of nothing and completely against the run of play, Fernandes is one of the few match-winners on the team. Against Fulham, he showed that preternatural ability, faking out two defenders, drawing in a third and then expertly sliding the ball into the corner past Fulham keeper Bernd Leno. He got a little lucky — his attempt to slide it into the box for United’s sudden goal machine Scott McTominay (who had a score wrongly chalked off in the first half) should have resulted in a turnover, but Fecundo Pellistri(who came in for an ineffectual Antony) did well to win it back and give Fernandes his chance. And a chance was all he needed.
With Marcus Rashford stuck in a funk, Rasmus Højlund unable to get going, Jadon Sancho playing more video games than actual matches, Mason Mount glued to the bench and Antony making about the same impact upon his return to the team as he did when he was on leave, United needs its captain more than ever.
Save us, Bruno.