Bruno Fernandes has been at the epicentre of an impressive turnaround for Manchester United. Everything has revolved around his quality, his touch, his vision and his leadership. It is still a club with problems, but thanks to Fernandes, there appears to be a route back to the elite once again.
Perhaps such a statement feels like an overreaction; for supporters of rival clubs desperate to denounce his contribution simply because he has scored a higher than average number of penalties this season, it certainly will be. United have spent over a £1bn on players over the past seven-and-a-half years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement signalled an abrupt end to around two decades of unprecedented dominance, and in the case of every single signing, they were hoping for the impact and level of quality Fernandes has supplied since arriving at Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon in January last year.
He was courted for some time, since the previous summer, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer held his nerve and refused to be held to ransom. United had become known for that, so perhaps it is fitting that the one time they resisted the temptation to dive in and over pay, they have been so impressively rewarded. He cost £47million initially, and appears to have been huge value for money with minimal fuss.
Fernandes has pulled everyone in the right direction; his teammates have gravitated towards him and his sheer presence on the pitch can be a direct link to a good performance and result. Without him, United are slow, passive, timid and play within themselves. Comparisons and sweeping a statements are a common and unhealthy trait of modern football, but there are clear parallels between Fernandes and Eric Cantona.
It is easy to dismiss and ridicule the notion of even putting the two of them in the same sentence; Cantona is an icon for the Red Devils, he galvanised title victories and best the hub of an incredibly successful team. His personality, while intoxicating, was problematic, but gave him that edge; it was his arrogance which made him so appealing and worth watching and worshipping.
Following months on the sidelines for his infamous karate kick on an opposing fan at Crystal Palace in 1995, Cantona entered Old Trafford like a king, ready to take down Liverpool on his return. He marked the occasion with a goal and his subjects couldn’t have been happier in greeting him. At the end of that season, in 1997 at the age of 30, he retired to pursue an acting career. All of a sudden he was gone, in a puff of smoke.
There is little doubt that a popularity contest between Cantona and Fernandes would be a futile exercise. The former has the charisma and mystique to go with his ability, ensuring his place as a legendary figure. In that regard, Fernandes may have a long way to go, but their similarities simply cannot be ignored.
There is an argument that Fernandes’ impact has been much more important; as much as Cantona inspired Ferguson’s team to great heights in the 1990s, their trajectory was heading north anyway. When Fernandes came in last year, Manchester United were floundering badly. Having lost three of their previous four Premier League games immediately prior to his transfer, on the penultimate day of the window, they went on to secure Champions League qualification with nine wins and five draws from their remaining 14 games. Fernandes, very much at the forefront, scored eight goals in that run as he helped arrest yet another slide.
Penalties have been a useful aide for United in recent times; they have been awarded 20, considerably more than any direct rival, since the start of last season. The fact that Fernandes has taken the vast majority means that the stat has become an easy way to target both him and the team who, after some very difficult moments under Solskjaer, are beginning to look stronger than they have in a long time. Despite sitting second in the league, a title challenge may just be a step too far for them this season, but the underdog status will suit them perfectly and after spending years sweating over the top four, recent progress is undeniable.
Fernandes has been the catalyst; standards aren’t as high as they were with Cantona, and the current playmaker doesn’t share his propensity to be a natural showman, but Fernandes has been a calming, confidence and quality-boosting figure in a similar way.
He is the benchmark for all future Manchester United signings and everything Paul Pogba was expected to be; their patience paid off and they got a world class player at the peak of his powers for a very reasonable price. Cantona mark II is perhaps going too far, but Fernandes is without doubt the club’s greatest modern day transfer success, and he is on his way to helping Manchester change their future for the better.
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