There was a time when Bruno Fernandes could do no wrong. Manchester United could be stinking the place out but their Portuguese talisman would invariably come away smelling of roses. A one-man rescue act. Catalyst, conductor and exemplar of the sort of a dressing room standards that were once a given at Old Trafford.
The Stretford End paraded a banner bearing the faces of Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson against Aston Villa and Fernandes seemed cut of similar indefatigable spirit. He seemed immune from United’s incurable ills. A player hellbent on digging them out of their hole. For so long he was winning that battle, too, even if at times it felt like he was fighting it alone. But the reality of United’s nosedive over the past six months is that it has spared no one, not even Fernandes which, given their past dependence on him is, to say the least, something of a problem.
It is probably a reflection of how truly mixed up things have become at Old Trafford, though, that a player who for so long represented a solution has, in recent times, found himself cast as a problem. There is, in truth, a big difference between a player being a problem and his loss of form presenting problems and, where Fernandes is concerned, it is very much the latter. His form will return and his class will out but the issue for Ralf Rangnick and United is they need Fernandes back at his best now. And, for the time being at least, he is being dragged down with the best of them. United’s stimulus has gone stale and having looked to him for inspiration for so long his team-mates do not quite know what to do with themselves without United’s Mr Responsibility taking all the responsibility.
Having been scolded for his moaning against Newcastle then dropped for Wolverhampton Wanderers, Fernandes returned against Villa as captain. As a metaphor for this strange, perpetually turbulent, upside down space United inhabit these days, it felt rather instructive, even if this idea of him as some sort of counterproductive presence is preposterous. Gary Neville had Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo firmly in mind when he branded United’s players a “bunch of whinge-bags” against Newcastle.
And, yes, sure, he has been throwing his arms around a lot and gesticulating wildly and angrily of late but he has always demanded more of team-mates and seldom been afraid to tell them on the pitch, a stance that, for a good while, earned him praise, not criticism.
There have been several factors behind Fernandes’ slump in form – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s bungled attempts to modernise the side, Ronaldo’s arrival and, more recently, Rangnick’s employment of a 4-2-2-2 formation that seems to have produced more square pegs in round holes than ever. United’s interim manager actually abandoned the system in the second half against Wolves, switching to a back three, and he had changed again yesterday, reverting to a 4-2-3-1 which, you would have thought, would spell good news for captain on the night Fernandes. The best you could say is Fernandes was game and more involved, and there were a couple of moments of inspiration, as you would expect from a player of his considerable talents, notably when playing a delicious flick into the path of Marcus Rashford and teeing up a good chance for Edinson Cavani.
But this version was still a shadow of the player who, 12 months ago, was among the Ballon d’Or contenders and United’s go to man. Remember Liverpool in the FA Cup third round last January? Fernandes coming off the bench to score a sublime free-kick and sink United’s great rivals?
Against Villa, he was withdrawn with five minutes to go with United clinging fortuitously to a scarcely deserved 1-0 lead, his record now standing at one goal in the past 21 outings. And the risk-taking that made him such a crowd pleaser has, of late at least, become a headache, with Fernandes too often squandering possession with needless passes when United really need him to keep the ball. A season that promised so much, and started with a bang, for both United and Fernandes with a hattrick in a 5-1 win over Leeds has been on a downward spiral ever since. And yet it is hard to escape the feeling that until Rangnick finds a way to get a tune out of Fernandes again then United will be limping on for a while yet.