Monday, 9 March 2020

Man Utd turning a corner with Bruno at the wheel

For Bruno Fernandes, this must have felt like a coronation, a crowning glory.
For the last few months there had been rumours of Manchester United's great midfield rebirth, of gears clunking and clanking into place, the jumbled collection of discombobulated pieces finding their place. The Manchester United midfield? Ah, yes, welcome back. Oh, it's been twelve years now.

Well, look again. At a damp and increasingly raucous Old Trafford, the stadium witnessed its best atmosphere for years. Fernandes produced a central midfield performance that seemed so at odds with the last decade or so. Amid the rip currents, Fernandes was swimming to shore on the turning of the tide.
So often, United's declining fortunes have become encapsulated by something ponderous at the heart of the engine room - a club drained not just of success, but of spirit, invention and belief.
This though, was something else. This looked, and felt, different. There can be no arguments we fully deserved the 2-0 derby day victory over Manchester City. In the middle of which Fernandes produced surely the best string-pulling performance anyone in Red has been able to muster against City since the balance of power shifted seismically.
Midfield has been a painful place to ply your trade against the passing triangles of City's slickers. But for the first time in many a year United shed the inferiority complex, threw off the underdog tag and came to the party.

It all sprung from Fernandes, who has been that rare thing in recent weeks and months - yes, an expensive, talented player, but also an expensive, talented player we actually needed and someone who wants to play for us.  Bringing craft and skill, but also something expressive, imaginative and extroverted. Imagine a Paul Pogba who actually wants to be at Old Trafford. Well, here he is, in our  number 18 shirt, running the show as a number 10.
Fernandes had played in seven instalments of United's impressive ten match unbeaten run before this derby. This, though, was a considerable step up in class and quality - a visit from the great colonising force of the European game, an ever evolving, always one-step-ahead team of slickers created by a man who dreams of turning the whole world a shade of midfield. A man whose teams will spend every second trying to pass and move you to death in the middle of the park. Over to you then, Bruno.

He began just ahead of the double pivot of Fred and Nemanja Matic in the most varied and balanced-looking midfield selection we've had for some time. One to give it, one to wander around like a decommissioned Dalek and one to offer to creative shoots of promise.

Clearly Fred and Fernandes already have an understanding. There was a lovely fizzed exchange of passes early on, one of several moments when they seemed to be simply enjoying themselves out there, bantering the ball between them, enjoying each other's repetoire. Teams are quite often simple things, so this is important.

On 15 minutes there was a slick, lightning fast Fred-Fernandes link up that led United away at breakneck pace. The latter fed Dan James for a shot straight at Ederson, nothing came of it from a player who hasn't scored since August, 36 games ago. The move may not have worked quite as we wanted on that occasion, but the signs were there.

Between them, the pair made United's opening goal. Drawing a foul from Ilkay Gundogan, Fernandes - activating the fairly acute Portuguese pain threshold - sprung up and stood over the free-kick with Fred. Was it rehearsed? It looked like it. First there was a gorgeous little sheen of misdirection as Fernandes raised his right arm and looked vaguely the other way, distracted by thoughts of a back post hoof, a whip, a punt, a sideways roll.
Anthony Martial darted in behind the sky blue line. As he began the move, Fernandes flicked his leg back like a golfer measuring his chip to the green. He played a beautiful, impudent, cheeky back-spin dink over the retreating blue shirts, the ball seemingly frozen in time before dipping into Martial's path.
Planning is one thing, execution in situations such as this quite another. This was a moment of cold, hard, technical brilliance in the middle of the firepit and the harum scarum 100mph battle of a Manchester derby.
The shot from Martial was low and well struck by Ederson should have saved it. A broader question is why Sergio Aguero wasn't marking that space in the first place but do we care? Not a jot.

City improved after the break. The blue shirts began to spread the play and everything they did seemed a yard or two quicker. The Fred - Fernandes axis fell apart as City seized control of midfield. There was a period of red defence against blue attack, but for all their possession there were no real alarm bells from City. At the death came Lord Sir Scott of McSauce to seal the deal with a brilliant long range finish after a hurried throw from a panicking Ederson left him with the open Stretford End goal to aim at.

It can be strange how football's crisis klaxon works. A while back United were fifth in the league, a financial basket case and playing as bad as we've seen. The club was on its knees on the field and off it, drawing talk of the darkest of dusks, at the tipping point which Salford itself would be consumed with hellfire.
Two months on, United are still fifth in the league, still a financial basket club with owners and a board to match. Suddenly soft music is playing and the buds of spring have sprouted through the soil. It will take more than one fine and timely signing to this team on from here. But at least one thing is certain. With Bruno Fernandes at the wheel, rumours of the rebirth of Manchester United's midfield - like one of his shots from distance - aren't far wide of the mark.

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