Monday , February 17 2020

Bruno Fernandes is a potential defensive ‘liability’, so how do Manchester United best use him?

There was plenty of encouragement to be found in Bruno Fernandes’ debut performance for Manchester United, even if they were held goalless by Wolves.

The £47million arrival from Sporting Lisbon – who could eventually cost up to £68m – wasn’t shy in being vocal to organise his team-mates and was happy to get on the ball and shoot from distance.

These are precisely the qualities that persuaded United to sign the Portugal international during the January transfer window.

Bruno Fernandes enjoyed an encouraging debut despite Man United being held by Wolves

The £68million arrival from Sporting Lisbon wasn't afraid to order his new team-mates around

The £68million arrival from Sporting Lisbon wasn’t afraid to order his new team-mates around

But there was also a glimpse of another side to his game, with Fernandes booked 10 minutes into the second-half for hauling back Raul Jimenez as he accelerated through midfield.

Fernandes doesn’t have the best disciplinary record – he was booked 16 times while playing for Sporting last season and nine times (plus receiving one red card) during the current campaign.

And this trait has worried United legend Ryan Giggs, who believes Fernandes could be a ‘defensive liability’ and that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to find out his best position to keep the United team balanced.

‘We saw glimpses of the quality he does possess,’ Giggs told Premier League Productions. ‘I think it might need a bit of working out what his best position is.

Ryan Giggs believes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must quickly find Fernandes' best position

Ryan Giggs believes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must quickly find Fernandes’ best position

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could utilise Fernandes in a variety of midfield positions

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could utilise Fernandes in a variety of midfield positions

‘With his back to goal, I don’t think that’s his position. When he’s a little bit deeper, defensively, he may be a bit of a liability. He’s in between the two really.

‘That’s where you want to see him, coming on to the ball.

‘But you also see when he is that little bit deeper he can spray the passes, he has got the vision to then play those passes. I think he’ll want to find his best position first of all.’

So where will Fernandes fit in best in the United side? We take a look at some of the options.

THE NO 10 ROLE

On Saturday, Solskjaer started Fernandes in the attacking midfield role that is most familiar to the 25-year-old.

He lined up in the centre of the three behind striker Anthony Martial in the 4-2-3-1 system usually favoured by Solskjaer, with Daniel James to his left and Juan Mata to his right.

Fernandes has replaced Jesse Lingard or Andreas Pereira in that role in the United side as he aims to be the team’s creative dynamo.

With two holding midfielders behind him, Fernandes should be free to pick the through balls to the striker, spread the play wide or shoot from distance as he did on a couple of occasions on Saturday.

Playing the No 10 role just behind United's forward line would allow Fernandes to shoot more

Playing the No 10 role just behind United’s forward line would allow Fernandes to shoot more

United hope their new signing will be able to supply the killer pass against massed defences

United hope their new signing will be able to supply the killer pass against massed defences

Playing him here negates those defensive liabilities because it wouldn’t be his role, but such is the player’s natural work ethic, he can’t help tracking back when the opposition counter.

The No 10 position was certainly an area needing improvement for United. Lingard has struggled for form for a long time now and hasn’t scored in the Premier League since Solskjaer’s first game in caretaker charge in December 2018.

And there have been plenty of question marks as to whether Pereira, who played in a deeper role alongside Fred against Wolves, is a United-calibre player after struggling this season.

Solskjaer will hope that Fernandes represents a significant upgrade in quality on Lingard and Pereira playing in the positions he became accustomed to at Sporting.

How United could line up with Fernandes in the No 10 role 

DEEPER BALL-PLAYING ROLE

Sticking with the same formation, Fernandes could also play in the central midfield two alongside Fred, McTominay or Pogba when he finally returns from injury.

That would mean keeping Lingard or Pereira in the side further forward and allowing Fernandes to perform a mix of defensive and attacking duties.

It’s a role he has played on occasion in the past at Sporting and plays into what Giggs was saying about him being ‘in between the two’, and able to spray pinpoint long passes.

The stats from his displays in the Portuguese Primeira Liga shows the vast majority of his passes are in a forward direction, so Fernandes should be an effective ball-playing link between defence and attack.

Fernandes doesn't have the best disciplinary record and playing him in a deeper role could cause problems when it comes to picking up yellow cards

Fernandes doesn’t have the best disciplinary record and playing him in a deeper role could cause problems when it comes to picking up yellow cards

It would, however, restrict some of his best attributes, notably chance creation, through passes and goals from distance because he might not necessarily be far enough forward to influence things.

And there is more chance of getting into trouble defensively if he commits forward, potentially leaving United exposed at the back.

Chasing back in pursuit of a breaking opposition more often also raises the danger of Fernandes accumulating even more yellow cards, too.

He is most likely to play this position only if Pogba leaves, however. 

How United could line up with Fernandes in a deeper position 

RIGHT SIDE OF MIDFIELD

If Solskjaer is willing to revert to a 4-3-3 system, there is the potential to play Fernandes on the right-hand side of the midfield three.

The Portuguese does naturally gravitate to that side of the pitch, or at least he did for Sporting, and so this could be exploited behind a front three of James, Martial and Rashford.

The energy of Fernandes in tandem with James and Wan-Bissaka on that side could be a dangerous weapon for United.

Fernandes tries his luck from a free-kick as United drew 0-0 against Wolves last Saturday

Fernandes tries his luck from a free-kick as United drew 0-0 against Wolves last Saturday

Fernandes could also cover Wan-Bissaka in his defensive responsibilities as well, putting his prodigious energy to best use.

And an additional bonus could be that Pogba, who prefers playing on the left side, could be accommodated there when he returns to the side.

With McTominay in the centre to anchor things whenever United push forward, this could be an effective way of utilising the creative talents of new boy Fernandes and his work ethic.

How United could line up with Fernandes on the right of midfield 

IN BEHIND A FORWARD THREE

One other possibility could be for Fernandes to sit in behind a forward line of Rashford, Martial and James in a 4-2-1-3 set-up.

Again, this would enable Fernandes to slip in those through passes to three different forwards, which would surely unlock the vast majority of opposition defences.

But there would have to be a strong core in central midfield behind otherwise the team risks becoming unbalanced and unprotected at the back.

Mind you, it could be an option in the many matches where United have struggled to unpick a packed defensive line.

Fernandes shows his combative side as he challenges compatriot Joao Mourinho

Fernandes shows his combative side as he challenges compatriot Joao Mourinho