Against Manchester City on Sunday, Bruno Fernandes applied pressure on Manchester City players on 20 different occasions.
Add in Paul Pogba (Fernandes’ makeshift strike partner), Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford (the attacking replacements) and Fred (the supposedly energetic central midfielder) and that total reached 70.
Manchester United won possession within five seconds of those presses just five times. Or, to put it another way, every 85 seconds in the match they tried hard to win the ball and were simply bypassed. That hurts elite players. And Manchester United players, if we choose to be unkind.
Fernandes likes to do things. Even at his best di lui he will spurn the chance to create goals, but then you miss all of the Hollywood balls you don’t try to make. He is pure risk vs reward and it didn’t used to matter because it came off more than it didn’t and when it came off United often scored. This became a victory for the law of averages. Twice last season he touched the ball more than 100 times in a Premier League match, once unthinkable for such an attacking player. In the derby on Sunday, he had 40 touches.
When Fernandes arrived at Manchester United, he became their de facto difference-maker because he filled a role that nobody else had raised their hand for. Having lost four of their seven Premier League games before his arrival of him, they promptly went seven months without league defeat. Fernandes was named Player of the Month in his first two months in England and in four of the first seven.
But as well as changing the team, bending an entire attack to his will, he was credited with shifting the culture of the club. He had leadership skills, he demanded better even after victory, he became the unofficial translator between English and non-English-speaking players because he was one of the few who spoke multiple languages well. These strike as very normal attributes; Manchester United lacked them.
And now to shift out of the past tense and into the present. Fernandes is suffering. He is trying things that don’t come off more often than not and pulling off things that cease to mean as much because of the incapacity that surrounds him. That becomes all-consuming until you cannot tell where your own competence ends and their incompetence starts. Each bleed into the other.
When watching most players who are down on their luck, the evidence is best seen when they are on the ball. It usually happens in one of two ways: either a player will try too much through a desperation to impress or correct previous mistakes, or they will try too little for fear of getting it wrong. With Fernandes, it’s the off-the-ball hints that matter: the increasing gripes at referees, the pointing to teammates as if he cannot believe that they are not making this easier for him, the pained look of a man who was sold a dream of pulling a club up and is now having it drag him down.
Perhaps this is simply a reflection of how a manager’s preferred style affects key players within a team. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United were a statue to individualism with Fernandes as the star. That was deeply flawed. This wasn’t quite “go out and play”, but not far enough from it to justify the extravagant spend on new signings. Any coherent system made it far too difficult for them than it should.
Under Ralf Rangnick, United have lurched from individualism to system with precious little time spent in the middle ground. In a 4-2-2-2 formation, there is no No 10. Fernandes either plays as an auxiliary forward or as a midfielder asked to drift wide and deep and so is creating fewer chances and having fewer shots. He is also being asked to do far more work off the ball.
But then this eventual decline surely extends beyond the manager because it eventually seems to engulf all at Old Trafford. If their decline is defined by one thing, it is how expensive, highly-rated players become stuck in the mud. Harry Maguire arrived as the most expensive central defender in the world but looks lost without composure around him. Aaron Wan-Bissaka cost £ 50m and has regressed since. Marcus Rashford broke onto the scene with a mood-defining confidence and determination to attack defenders. Now he looks broken. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, that totem of uber-confidence, has stopped scoring and stopped looking like he will score.
That is the great wastage of modern Manchester United. Not the money spent on transfer fees and wages – they have plenty of that anyway. Not the gradual drop in expectations, from Champions League contenders to also-rans, title challengers to top-four hopefuls. But the manner in which the mood of the club eventually rubs the gloss of those who shone here or elsewhere.
The decline in standards is phenomenal, the brief glimmers of positivity as damaging as the defeats. During that infamous David Moyes season – the manager out of his depth di lui, the club struggling to cope with the loss of a dynastical leader, the squad that looked weak in several areas – United took 64 league points. They have wasted all their advantages since and are currently on course for… 64 points.
Fernandes should never have been expected to change that alone; no one player or one person deserves that. But the growing regret of his Manchester United career is that, for a period of 18 months, he looked like he might. He showed them a route to possible salvation and then watched on as it was wasted. He is learning what so many others have learned over the last decade: Manchester United will get you in the end. Just not like they used to.