Few sides are led by momentum as much as Manchester United. At least in Bruno Fernandes they have a captain willing to drag them on to a different course…
Manchester United have many problems but, once again, Bruno Fernandes really is not one of them.
The Red Devils skipper seemed to cop much of the flak in the wake of the miserable defeat at Tottenham last week. Graeme Souness remained ‘mystified’ why Fernandes was given the armband; Micah Richards labelled him ‘pathetic’ and suggested his style of leadership was ‘disturbing’ his team-mates.
Someone has to. Because for all the improvements Erik ten Hag has made in the last year, this team remains chock-full of amblers and drifters. Too many players tuned to go with the flow, wherever it takes them.
Rarely has that been more evident than inside the opening four minutes against Nottingham Forest. After a week of scrutiny and criticism, the minimum expectation of United was of a determined start. Instead, they vindicated even their shoutiest of critics by caving in to the fastest two-goal deficit a United side has ever given up.
Each goal was gift for the visitors and judging which was more generous is the tightest of calls. From United’s perspective, both were complete clusterf*cks.
Forest’s opener came from a United corner. One clearance and one missed challenge from last-man-back Marcus Rashford left Taiwo Awoniyi one-on-one with Andre Onana. Awoniyi had a long way to go, yet Onana stayed perfectly still, choosing to stay deep and close to his line, rather than engage and close down the striker’s angle. Such an approach is meant to give the keeper more reaction time to make a save rather than relying on size simply to block.
Which might have been a legitimate approach had Onana not sat down while falling for the meekest of dummies. The new United keeper tried to provoke a battle of wits and surrendered hilariously easily. But Onana will be quite entitled to ask why he’s being bothered just a few seconds after United are setting up for a corner.
United’s approach to attacking corners is to swamp the final third so as to ensure they pick up loose balls and pin in the opposition even if they fail to make make the first contact. It’s a calculated gamble and it backfired spectacularly here.
If Forest’s opener was a structural flaw, Ten Hag will be pinning the second on individuals. United had Willy Boly surrounded on the edge of the six-yard box prior to a free-kick from wide on the right. Casemiro goal-side; Aaron Wan-Bissaka screening. The former was flatfooted; the latter moved only to duck the challenge.
Shambolic though their start was, to give United their dues, they emerged from their funk when the home supporters at Old Trafford recognised that their side needed lifting more than slating. There would be plenty of time for that, if the players didn’t buck their ideas up.
United responded to that shift in mood. Which illustrates their problem. This squad seems incapable of digging itself out. It is hard to think of a side whose performances match so closely the mood around them.
Most of the positive facets of their play involved Fernandes. The United skipper leads by example and though he obviously struggles to keep a lid on his emotions, the question ought to be why he needs to, rather than focusing on the preservation of the delicate feelings of those around him. If Fernandes’ body language and his justified moans are enough to put them off their game, maybe a stage like Old Trafford isn’t for them?
Bruno Fernandes’s game by numbers vs. Nottingham Forest:
53/68 passes completed
6/8 long balls completed
5 ground duels won
3 key passes
2/2 tackles won
2 big chances created
Magnifico. 🪄 pic.twitter.com/R0ssPPsgbB
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) August 26, 2023
If he was cursing out his team-mates, they could not reasonably point the finger back at Fernandes. In the centre, firmly in the thick of things after last week’s temporary shift on the flank, the captain pulled United’s creative strings. Rashford, after two matches through the middle, was a much greater threat too, back out on the left. A welcome return to form, but a concern for Ten Hag since he will still have to force Rashford into a central role far too often this season unless he is allowed to source and sign another no.9 this week.
Because while Rasmus Hojlund is on his way to fitness, Anthony Martial showed once again, for what ought to be the thousandth and final time, that he cannot lead United’s line. The Frenchman might be rusty after his hamstring injury, but there was so little difference from his usual listlessness that it is hard to tell.
Rashford teed up the first and third goals; Fernandes set up the second and scored what proved to be the winner. But United, seemingly aware of their own capacity for calamity, did not seem to believe that would be enough. Even with a lead against 10 men, when more savvy sides would have cooled their jets and asserted a level of control on proceedings, United continued to pour forward looking for the fourth, at the risk of conceding a third.
If Ten Hag had hair, he’d have long since yanked it out. Control is the one thing he simply must find in the transfer market before the window closes on Friday night. He might be resigned to not signing another striker, and perhaps he is content to look in the bargain bucket for a left-back to cover Luke Shaw. But the manager must demand that he be allowed to add another central midfielder to bring some authority to the engine room.
Such a signing might soothe Fernandes and allow him to focus on his creative duties. Without the aid of a mirror, Kevin De Bruyne said this week that he could see no one better in that respect and he was proved right yet again this afternoon. The focus around Fernandes really ought to shift to those brilliant qualities rather than his more shouty habits.
Report: Manchester United 3-2 Nottingham Forest: Bruno completes stirring fightback