Fernandes rights the wrongs of his Manchester United debut

Date published: Tuesday 29th December 2020 10:40 - Matthew Stead

It had to be him. And him. Not Marcus Rashford, credited with the late winner, but Romain Saiss, the impeccable man of the match who cruelly deflected a stoppage-time effort into his own goal, and Bruno Fernandes, who provided the platform for such misfortune.

Thus concluded the latest classic between Manchester United and Wolves, whose seven meetings under the respective guidance of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Nuno Espirito Santo have now produced nine goals and a series of games that can only be described as intriguing tactical chess battles by people who want Garry Kasparov to be unhappy.

Saiss had been close to peerless for the previous 90 minutes, repelling many an attack and hitting the crossbar at the other end. One instance saw him conjure a wonderful late block to thwart Rashford, who had been found by a searching long ball down the right before being adjudged offside. You can see why the Wolves defender fancied his chances once more as the game neared its end.

That coin flip favoured Rashford later on but it was Fernandes who was predictably central to the goal. Harry Maguire deserves credit too, salvaging the ball on the byline and granting the Portuguese a moment of time and space away from the clutches of his two countrymen at the heart of the Wolves midfield. Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves held their own throughout but one misstep from the latter changed the game.

If it looked like a speculative punt, the replays proved otherwise: Fernandes had collected the pass, turned, glanced up, seen Rashford running off Max Kilman’s shoulder and launched a 50-yard ball into his path, off-balance, within three seconds. There is only so much you can do to counter that.

It was in the corresponding fixture last season that Fernandes made his debut and United’s eyes were opened.¬†“He’ll be a top, top addition,” noted Solskjaer after one of his new signing’s more quiet games – five shots, three tackles, 110 touches – in an assessment that could perhaps be described as a slight understatement in hindsight.

“Bruno is one of those players, when he gets ball into feet, he wants players moving in front of him, which we didn’t have, so we moved him further back to get on the ball more,” the manager added then.¬†Solskjaer might not always maximise his players’ strengths but he does not take long to identify them. Such a unique assist from within his own half after dropping a little further away from the action attests to that.

It also underlines the progress made since his first game, when Fred, Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira failed to adequately support him and Daniel James and Anthony Martial were unable to capitalise on such skill. With Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Edinson Cavani and a confident Rashford surrounding him instead, the difference is plain to see.

Two points from difficult fixtures against Leicester and Wolves would have been acceptably underwhelming but four cannot be seen as anything other than growth: in team ethic, in individual quality, in character and mentality.

No player sums that up more effectively than the Premier League’s best of 2020. Fernandes has taken United from Europa League stragglers to leaders of the chasing pack within less than a year of his arrival. Solskjaer could not have wished for better foundations upon which to continue his rebuild.

Matt Stead

 

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