There hasn’t been much to shout about at Manchester United in recent years.
Success under legendary manager Alex Ferguson feels like a distant memory to a global fan base that has watched their once great club slide from one bad decision to another.
An FA Cup win under Louis van Gaal in 2016 and Europa League glory under Jose Mourinho in 2017 were two of the highlights in what has been an uninspiring period since Ferguson retired in 2013, and a far cry from the 38 trophies won by the Scot in his 26 years at the club.
The future didn’t look much better in January. The club, now managed by former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, finished fifth in the league table by the New Year.
The football was poor, the atmosphere was toxic and star Paul Pogba, once seen as the saving grace, seemed ready to leave as soon as he could.
But, fast forward seven months, and there are now signs of new life under Solskjaer, especially since the arrival of one Bruno Fernandes.
The Portuguese playmaker turned up at Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon in January and was thrown into a team lacking in creativity, quality and leadership.
Fortunately for his new hires, Fernandes seems to have all three of those attributes in abundance.
Since their debut earlier this year, United have not lost a game in the league, climbing the table to finish third and qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2018- 19. It was a remarkable feat considering the club began the campaign with their worst start to a league season in 33 years.
Furthermore, Fernandes brought excitement back into the red half of Manchester after years of uninspiring, and often woeful, performances.
His eight league goals and seven assists show the type of player United now have on their hands.
“Hey [Fernandes] he told me about the league, how intense it is to play in this league,” Porto star Danilo Pereira told CNN Sport.
“It’s not a surprise to me to see the impact he’s had in Manchester. I think United can go back to their golden years with him and Pogba and other players.”
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If there is such a thing as a typical Manchester United player, Fernandes would surely be it.
The attacking midfielder has become an instant success, risky, exciting to watch and able to cope with the extreme pressures of playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
He has been a leader since day one; stepping up to take (and score) six penalties during his short stay at the club, including the key spot-kick against Leicester City that helped United on their way to the Champions League next season.
Former players and pundits alike have praised his performances since moving to England, where he has won the Man of the Match award in almost every game he has played.
“You see he has talent and he’s fearless. He wants the ball, which you would expect from a very good player,” former Premier League star and current Monaco player Cesc Fabregas told CNN Sport.
“But what I like is that he’s smart about moving down the field. He knows when to get between the lines. He knows when to go into space when he sees somebody’s available for a chip. He gets to the second line fantastically.
“It supports the midfield when they are building and struggling a bit, and when teams are putting a lot of pressure on them.
“He can play long, he can play short, small passes. He has the personality to take free kicks and penalties. He’s not afraid. He doesn’t hide. I think Man United made a very good choice. A very good signing.”
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Adapting to the Premier League is no easy task. Players generally need time to get used to the physical nature and fast pace of the league, but that hasn’t been an obstacle for Fernandes.
Although his performances in Portugal gave an indication of what was to come, such an instant impact took many by surprise.
“You looked at the Sporting Lisbon player and he was obviously someone who scored a lot of goals and someone who created a lot of goals, but there is always a challenge as to whether he can translate that to a better league and a new club. British journalist Richard Jolly told CNN Sport, adding that he saw no realistic way for United to finish in the top four without Fernandes.
“But he’s been a transformative player and a revelation in terms of how quickly he’s done it, I mean it really was from day one.
“You look at both the goal tallies and the assist tallies, and they’re fantastic. If you could keep that form going all season, that’s an incredible player.”
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– Source: CNN
While his individual brilliance is evident, Fernandes’ arrival has seen the form of players around him rise.
The attacking trio of Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford scored at will after football returned from lockdown (the team have scored 22 goals in their last nine league games), and as Pogba and Nemanja Matic have looked more settled in the middle of the field. .
Pogba, in particular, is a different player than one who seemed weighed down by the pressure of being the biggest star in the starting line-up.
The Frenchman’s relationship with the club appeared to hit rock bottom earlier this season, with constant rumors linking the midfielder with a move away from the club.
Fans were also frustrated with Pogba for spending much of the season on the treatment table after suffering two ankle injuries. When they saw him on the field, he often felt let down.
But now, since returning from his latest post-lockdown injury, there have been early signs that a partnership with Fernandes could flourish and the World Cup winner suddenly looks more comfortable.
“I think Pogba likes to be surrounded by big players and big characters in his own right, I don’t think he wants to be the only big name out there, and so have all the pressure on him,” Jolly said.
“I think he probably doesn’t want to be in a midfield where he’s surrounded by mediocrity. I think you’ve already seen signs of a bit of chemistry between Pogba and Fernandes which helps, but I think he also appreciates the element of playing with other players in quality around them”.
Fernandes had been linked with a move to Old Trafford throughout 2019 and there had been disappointment when the deal was not completed in time for the new season.
So when the transfer crossed the line in January for an initial $61m (£47m), fans were ready to see what all the fuss was about. It’s safe to say they haven’t been disappointed.
“I compare it to what Eric Cantona did when he came to Manchester United from Leeds [in 1992] and we won our first Premiership title,” he said. “It was kind of the starting point for real success.
“Now, I’m not saying Bruno Fernandes will take Manchester United to the same level of success as Cantona, but he’s not just a player who makes us great.
“He’s a player who has come in and made everyone else around him better.”
It’s easy to forget that Fernandes has only been at the club for a few months, but he has already established himself as a firm fan favourite, with one moment in particular, in a game against local rivals Manchester City, one of his defining moments. short stay at the club. the club.
Fernandes has been involved in a fight with Pep Guardiola, which has resulted in the Portuguese putting his finger to his lips and silencing the City manager.
“I think Bruno, in a very short period of time, has certainly come in and really understood what Manchester United is about,” Goldbridge said.
“Ultimately, there is a fine line between understanding what Manchester United is and being someone who loves the game, wants to play the game the right way and wants to win.
“I remember his little argument with Pep when we played Man City, and the fans loved it because I think Fernandes just wants to win.”
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Although United’s form dipped for the final two games of the season, fans will be holding on to these encouraging signs of life and hope it is not another false dawn at the club.
Third place, while not in line with the club’s true ambition, should be seen as progress and attention can now turn to winning the Europa League, which resumes on August 5.
United face a simple task in the second leg against LASK on Wednesday, going 5-0 up from the first leg and all but guaranteed a place in the quarter-finals.
While winning Europe’s secondary club cup competition is nothing to smile about, the real prize is still the Premier League.
Despite all the improvements seen at the club in recent weeks, the gulf between them and Liverpool and Manchester City remains wide – this season they finished 33 points behind future champions Liverpool.
A productive summer in the transfer market could be just what United need, with Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho just one of the names linked with a move to Old Trafford.
There had been signs of success during both Van Gaal’s and Mourinho’s time at the club, but something seems different with United under Solskjaer.
Perhaps a return to its glory days isn’t too far off.
“It looks more sustainable and one of the things they’re doing is they’re not only beating teams, but if you look at that winning streak, they’ve won a lot of those games comfortably and pretty emphatically, and pretty entertainingly.” , Jolly said.
“I think what you’ll see next year is not necessarily United winning the league, but them getting into the top four much more comfortably.”