Is Bruno Fernandes’ influence at Manchester United waning?

Bruno Fernandes runs. He runs and runs, and then when it looks like he has exhausted himself, he finds an extra bit of energy to run more. Running data can paint an imprecise picture of a player’s effort, but the eye test is enough to get a grasp of how hard Fernandes works.

Even in the rare moments when he stands still, he appears to be running. The United captain is more than a cardiovascular marvel; he is one of the top creators in the Premier League and the cogs in his brain are always whirring.

In a United squad often racked by tactical indecision, Fernandes burns with a strong desire to be a hero.

He cannot do everything but, for the better part of four years, he has tried to do exactly that. Fernandes is a fitness doubt for Wednesday’s FA Cup game but the bigger picture is he is rarely injured, is willing to sacrifice parts of his game for others and sets a playing tempo for those around him. This season, the superhuman efforts of Fernandes have yielded all-too-human results. It has been a difficult campaign for the playmaker, who is yet to score in the Premier League in 2024.

He is now the galvanising force who is finding it harder to will his team to victory — but why?

“He’s been asked to play a lot of different roles and there are been a lot of moving parts in the midfield,” says the former striker and United academy player Danny Webber.

“If you look at the amount of chances he’s created this season (Fernandes has racked up 74), it’s more than anybody in the Premier League. He’d have a lot more assists and his numbers would be better if the chances he created were finished. Up until recently, United had quite a barren spell in front of goal.”

When Fernandes is on the ball, he favours line-breaking passes over ball retention. This approach has been a point of conversation even before he arrived at United, with scouts believing his aggressive passing style to be a worry.

But this high-risk-high-reward passing approach suited a United team in desperate need of a creative spark in January 2020, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side fed the ball to him in high volume to make things happen.

Players have come and gone at Old Trafford since 2019-20, but Fernandes has remained a vital source of goals. A look at his non-penalty goals and assists in the Premier League shows he has held steady numbers season-on-season. At his finest, Fernandes’ passing can turn a defensive phase into a promising counter-attack. While his consistent availability and all-action tendencies are key reasons why Erik ten Hag believes United are better at focusing on attacking transitions than playing settled possession.

Season Non Penalty Goals Expected Goals (xG) Assists Expected Assists (xA) Games Played































(Fernandes has scored 16 Premier League penalties in his United career. Four in 2019-20, nine in 2020-21, two in 2022-23 and one this season.)

For all of Fernandes’s qualities, he has weaknesses. His lack of pace off the mark and discomfort when dribbling makes him an awkward fit when he is played out wide.

His enthusiasm can lead to situations in which he is a one-man press trying to regain possession while compromising his team’s defensive shape. The 29-year-old is uneasy when receiving the ball with his back to the goal or when pressured by an opponent, meaning his utility in deeper midfield areas is limited.

Fernandes does have a crafty workaround for this: he typically drops into the half-spaces to receive the ball where he can find more room. If he is forced to collect the ball in more central areas, he can often be seen trying to backheel or flick the ball around the corner rather than collect possession and turn to face the opposition goal. 

Fernandes has to operate centrally as the No 10 to play at his best. He ideally wants to play in a team that can sustain attacking pressure, in which the ball can be circulated to him early and often. Above all, he is most effective when working on the transition surrounded by multiple attacking runners. 

Fernandes’ role under Ten Hag has changed (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

“If you’re Bruno or you’re Casemiro or anybody in the middle of the park, you need runners in behind for two reasons,” says Webber. “It’s your first option and your most direct route to goal; if the ball is good and the run is good, then you’re in behind the defence and don’t have defenders to beat. Two, because it creates space for other players to come to feet.

A myriad of injuries and other tactical issues have made it difficult for Ten Hag to provide an environment where Fernandes can succeed. Fernandes has been asked to spend the latter stages of multiple games on the right wing to accommodate Scott McTominay’s drives from central midfield. The extended absences of Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw mean United cannot sustain pressure on opponents as well as they did last season, and Fernandes has often had to drop deeper in search of the ball when United are in possession. A rotating cast of forwards in the front three has been a factor too. 

Both player and manager seem to be aware of this, and Fernandes is playing with more restraint in games. He is playing more passes into the penalty area than ever, but taking fewer touches inside the penalty area. Compare his heat map from 2022-23 below…

Bruno Fernandes heat map 22 23

…to this season to date.

Bruno Fernandes heat map 23 24png

During this campaign, Fernandes is taking fewer touches on the right and is increasingly attempting to link play with team-mates on the left flank. It is a minor adjustment in where he comes onto the ball, and his creative numbers remain stable.

But this season, Fernandes is not the attacking conduit he has been in the past.

Unable to do what he thrives at, Fernandes’s weakness has come to the fore. He has frustrated many with his gung-ho approach when in possession, losing the ball too often and affording opponents easy opportunities to launch counter-attacks.

His game management has come into question, with observers asking why he continues to play in a fast attacking manner even in games in which United would benefit from playing slowly and with more control. His leadership qualities are also a source of debate; a section of fans have grown weary of his histrionics and protestations with match officials, and he has been booked on four occasions in the Premier League this season for dissent. 

Fernandes’s playing relationship with Rasmus Hojlund has encountered teething issues. The striker ranks sixth for chances created by Fernandes in the Premier League this season. It is a continued trend throughout his United career: Fernandes is an attacking midfielder who does not create many chances for his centre-forwards. 

hojlund fernandes passes 2

“You rarely see a central midfielder play a straight ball through to a centre-forward,” says Webber.

“You play a diagonal ball with a straight run (from the forward), which means, more often than not, the ball is coming from out wide. Or you play a straight ball with a diagonal run (from the forward). So if you’re in the centre of the park, the obvious ball to play would be clipped over the centre-half and full-backs’ head, or in between that gap.

“That’s more (Marcus) Rashford or (Alejandro) Garnacho territory. If one of those two would go on and score, Fernandes would get the assist. If not, then Fernandes is in the phase before the assist.”

This season, Fernandes is playing fewer through-balls down the left for Rashford or Garnacho to run onto and more crosses from the left half-space for late-arriving central midfielders such as McTominay. These are symptoms of wider tactical and personnel issues that Fernandes is trying his hardest to remedy. 


“Players like him have the quality to play different kinds of passes,” says Webber. “When you play a pass with the outside of the boot or a ball over the top, your accuracy has to be so on point — as well as the run of the forward. So to get all of those pieces together… sometimes it looks like you lose the ball quite easily, but you need those types of players and forwards to be on the same wavelength to be able to score all types of goals.”

Fernandes’ brand of playing is odd — but it has had to be in a team that has had multiple strikers since his arrival. While it’s true that he’s yet to develop an understanding with a No 9 at United, the amount of strikers he has played with has to be taken into account. Edinson Cavani hunts for passes differently from Anthony Martial, who himself wants to be supplied differently from Cristiano Ronaldo or Wout Weghorst.

“You look at (Kevin) De Bruyne when he has (Erling) Haaland playing and the type of runs that he makes,” says Webber, “Haaland will peel off the centre-back when looking for the pass. Not a straight run, he’ll peel off to one side of the box, which gives De Bruyne the angle and the space to play him behind. That’s a very well-oiled relationship.

“When Hojlund came into the team, there initially wasn’t the understanding as to how he was going to get his goals. There wasn’t an understanding about what Fernandes wanted.”

What comes next for Fernandes will be down to application between him and his manager. Fernandes is 30 in September with a contract that ends in the summer of 2026.

In a season notable for chaotic defeats, critics believe Fernandes’s playing style adds fuel to a fire that United are struggling to contain. Yet, for his team to salvage the remainder of their season, they will have to make the most of his strengths while covering up his weaknesses.

There are other attacking midfielders who are better-rounded than Bruno Fernandes, but few are as influential to their team. 

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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