The 1-1 tie between Manchester United and Atletico Madrid will not be remembered as one of Bruno Fernandes’ best performances.
For big swaths of the game, he struggled to get into the game, cutting a frustrated figure as Atletico outplayed, outfought, and outmanoeuvred United. Particularly in the first half, when it appeared as if the home team could score at will.
Despite this, United managed to keep the score at 1-0, and Fernandes then demonstrated why he is still so essential to United.
With 10 minutes remaining, Fernandes received the ball following a well-executed series of passes down the left channel by Jadon Sancho, Fred, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Fernandes ran into the Atletico half from a central position.
No one challenged Fernandes, so he kept going before slipping a slightly under-hit through ball into Anthony Elanga’s hands. Reinildo Mandava, an Atleti defender, should have intercepted the ball, but he somehow missed it.
Now that Elanga was in the clear, he curled his shot beyond Jan Oblak to give United a crucial advantage in the tie.
It was another another example of Fernandes’ ability to deliver greatness even when he isn’t at his best.
Fernandes has had a rollercoaster season. While his production hasn’t quite reached the heights of his first year at United, he has still managed nine goals and 14 assists across all competitions.
Furthermore, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s and Ralf Rangnick’s frequent rotation of places hasn’t helped matters. Fernandes has played as a No.10, a deep-lying playmaker, and even a short stint on the right side of United’s attacking three.
The constant change of position has clearly harmed his game, as Paul Scholes remarked on BT Sport coverage before United’s game against Atletico Madrid.
When asked if Fernandes could play in a deeper role, Scholes said, “I think he can do it in some games, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only certain games.”
“He can play that position without difficulty, but when you play against the top teams, they won’t have as much possession, and they won’t have the ball as much.”
“I think he’s a lot better in the number 10 position, floating around, getting on the ball, and creating opportunities like he does.”
If we didn’t previously have enough evidence, Fernandes’ contribution in Elanga’s goal demonstrates that he’s better suited to playing higher forward as an attacking midfielder. Rangnick used Fernandes as a ten behind Ronaldo at the start of his reign, but he now appears to have settled on that role.
If United want to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League next season, they will need Fernandes to be at his best, which means playing him at his best position.
Even when he isn’t at his best, as the Atleti game revealed, he can have a significant impact on games.