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11th Dec 2023

Costly Liverpool suspension offers Manchester United glimpse of different future

Patrick McCarry

Bruno Fernandes

Gives fans a chance to see how that midfield ticks without him.

In the recent ‘Keep, Ditch, Last Straw’ segment on Stick to Football, Roy Keane and Gary Neville agreed on eight players Manchester United should move on. When they came to Bruno Fernandes, both men shook their head.

“You’re not getting rid of him,” Ian Wright exclaimed, as Jamie Carragher nodded in agreement. All four pundits agreed, KEEP.

When you look around the United dumpster fire squad, they have bigger dead-weight logs to shift. Bruno Fernandes is coming on four years at Old Trafford and has yet to reach the same heights as his first 18 months at the club. He would struggle to get into the midfields of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal – fans of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Tottenham may argue likewise – yet he is a virtual ever-present for United.

On Tuesday, he will captain United as they roll the dice and go for broke against Bayern Munich. Even if they beat the Germans, they may still miss out on the Champions League Last 16. On Sunday, he will be a spectator as United go to Liverpool not exactly looking to avenge a 7-0 walloping, as trying to avoid another serving.

Fernandes picked up another silly yellow card in the 3-0 loss to Bournemouth, last Saturday, and is suspended for the league encounter with Liverpool. Some social media cynics suggested he had been booked on purpose, to avoid more Anfield ignominy. For Erik ten Hag, the absence of the United captain gives him a chance to change up his midfield and see what life is like without the guy who is, in essence, an accurate reflection on the quality of the current squad.

Good. Very good, even.

Not good enough.

Bruno FernandesBruno Fernandes clutches his face, on the Anfield turf. (Credit: Getty)

Bruno Fernandes and the Anfield ‘disgrace’

In early March of this year, Bruno Fernandes was Manchester United captain when the team had an all-time melt-down against Liverpool, at Anfield.

United arrived in Merseyside in decent form – six wins from their previous seven games, including a League Cup final win over Newcastle. Liverpool were trying to overcome a poor start to the season that had season that had seen them lose seven times in the league by early February (they would finish the season in fifth).

Even at the height of the Alex Ferguson era, United supporters would never be too cocky heading to Anfield. Liverpool are a club that can ramp up to the nth degree for their fierce rivals, so it is often an approach with caution approach.

Ten Hag, buoyed by that trophy win, a week before, went with a bold selection – Wout Weghorst, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Antony the attacking threats, with Fred and Casemiro there to hold down the fort. United looked decent in the first half but trailed to a Cody Gakpo goal, at the break. In the second half, they conceded six more goals in 40 stupefying minutes to lose 7-0.

Fernandes was labelled a “disgrace” by Gary Neville, after the game. He had been a petulant figure as United fell apart, and he looked bad trying to claim he was elbowed and writhing around on the Anfield turf. Roy Keane took that criticism further:

“Fernandes’ body language today was nothing short of disgraceful. A really talented boy, he’s your captain, but his body language, waving his arms, not running back, you wouldn’t be happy with him in your dressing room.”

The United team that will take to the pitch, this Sunday, may only have three or four of the same players that started that thumping in March. Weghorst, Fred, David De Gea and subs, that day, Marcel Sabitzer and Anthony Elanga are gone. The Dutchman clearly hated a lot of what he saw. Still, he opted to make Fernandes his captain for this season.

By all accounts, Fernandes is one of the most dedicated professionals at the club, impresses that work ethic on others, and a role model to many of the younger players. He cares about those around him – look at how he has taken Alejandro Garnacho under his wing, spurring him on all the time, and when he allowed the woefully out-of-touch Marcus Rashford to take, and score, a penalty against Everton.

He is far too grating on referees and is not a great captain, in terms of riling up opponents, match officials, rinsing teammates, making costly fouls in bad areas of the pitch (see Galtasaray away), and that hang-dog demeanour when United fall a goal or two behind.

He does give a f**k, though. It is one of his best qualities. He has an X-factor, too, that so many at United could not find if you handed them a fully charged phone and a pin drop location on Google Maps. His match-winner against Fulham showed you that. He has often come up with the goods when others have come up way, way short.

He is streets ahead of so many of his teammates but his returns are diminishing. In his first 18 months at the club, he had 65 goal involvements (40 goals, 25 assists). In the two and a half seasons since, he has 63 (29 goals, 34 assists).

With Fernandes in the United midfield, or as No.10, the other two in the centre need to be on it. They need to cover for him as he can be exploited when United lose possession.

We have seen this already, this season (just this season, mind) against Wolves, Tottenham, Nottingham Forest, Arsenal, Manchester City, Newcastle, Bouremouth, Bayern Munich, Copenhagen (twice) and Galatasaray (twice).

Watching United trying to accommodate both Fernandes and Scott McTominay in midfield has been painful to watch. It may be possible with a fully fit Casemiro, but it is not happening with turgid Sofyan Amrabat or Kobbie Mainoo – lots of potential here but still finding his way.

Bruno FernandesRasmus Hojlund of Manchester United speaks with Bruno Fernandes. (Photo by James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Bruno Fernandes misses trip to lion’s den

In picking up that yellow card against the Cherries, Bruno Fernandes misses the trip to the lion’s den. It will be interesting to see who Erik ten Hag turns to, and it could offer a glimpse at an alternative United XI.

Bruno Fernandes is a good player, but he is not at such a level that one would not consider a starting XI without him in it.

Given that Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Mason Mount are all out injured, one wonders how Erik ten Hag will look to staunch that Liverpool flow. As it currently stands, United would likely go into the game with Rasmus Hojlund leading the line and two from Antony, Rashford and Garnacho on the flanks.

In midfield, Scott McTominay should get another start – although his passing deficiencies were brutally set upon by Bournemouth – while Mainoo may be tasked with sitting in to screen the defence. The last man standing looks to be Amrabat, and Liverpool will be licking their lips. The Moroccan is slow.

Although far from ideal, United starting Mainoo and Amrabat, with McTominay in a more advanced role could leave them better off than Fernandes being involved, especially if a rear-guard effort is involved.

Heading into the next transfer window, Erik ten Hag must figure out how to use Mason Mount properly as the English midfielder has looked a bust. There is talk of Casemiro moving to the Saudi League but the club is wretchedly short of centre midfield options. Mainoo could be the longer-term answer but he will have some tougher times ahead as he gets up to speed.

United look to be in between a rock and a hard place. There is so much uncertainty swirling that a permanent transfer should not be expected in January.

If ten Hag had any favours left to call in, he should try get Palhinha in the door, from Fulham. The Portugal international was set for Bayern Munich in the summer transfer window but the Germans ran out of time to seal the deal. Liverpool are now said to be circling.

Fernandes is a problem for United. He is often a luxury they cannot afford.

Not for the first time, though, there are much, much bigger problems to be tackled first.

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