For almost the entirety of Bruno Fernandes’ Manchester United career, he’s been their saviour, rescuing points and wins for the Red Devils with virtuoso displays.
Yet, so quickly things can turn in football, and after a few months of indifferent form, suddenly the midfielder found himself on the bench for the 1-0 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday.
Excluding rotation, that’s really the first time in his United career to date he’s been dropped. The first time a manager has approached an important game and opted not to start with Fernandes in his United line-up.
But it’s not merely as simple as Fernandes struggling to play at his very best - there’s even still an argument to state he’s outperforming his team-mates - but the dynamics have changed at Old Trafford.
It was one of the few question marks when Cristiano Ronaldo was signed - can he and Fernandes perform together? While it would be unfair to say they lack chemistry on the pitch together, there’s certainly no obvious connection or link-up play between United’s goalscorer and creator-in-chief.
Then there’s the new 4-2-2-2 shape - does it suit Fernandes? Can he shine in a shape that doesn’t really cater to a natural No.10? Considering the former Sporting man’s best form has come when he’s needed to pull the strings in a 4-2-3-1 system, it’s hard to make a case that Ralf Rangnick is best ultilising Fernandes’ skillset.
For all his heroics at United, the midfielder does seem to be a player who excels when he’s the man holding the reins; when he’s the biggest cog in the machine. But with Ronaldo in town, that just simply hasn’t been the case this season.
Then there’s the gesticulating, the finger-pointing and the general air of frustration he’s exuded of late. That a clearly irritated Gary Neville called him out for such actions was perhaps the most damning and public manner for such an issue to be highlighted.
Was Rangnick right to drop him?
Given the above, it wasn’t a surprise to see Fernandes relegated to the bench on Monday. United’s best performance in recent weeks was the 3-1 victory over Burnley, where the Portuguese international was suspended.
In addition, Fernandes’ recent performances have been sloppy, far below the standards we’ve come to expect. Against Newcastle United, no-one gave the ball away more, and in the win over Norwich City, he made just one key pass all game.
Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 shape also doesn’t particularly suit a No.10, therefore it’s no surprise he opted for two widemen against Wolves.
What do the numbers say?
In the Premier League, Fernandes’ stats have massively dropped. After scoring a hat-trick on the opening weekend of the season, he’s only managed two more goals since then and just three assists all season.
In comparison, during the second half of the 2019/20 campaign, Fernandes managed eight goals and seven assists from 14 games. Last season, it was 18 goals and 11 assists across the whole league season.
But it’s more than just goal contributions - Fernandes averaged 3.5 key passes in the first six league games this season, compared to 1.6 in the six most recent matches, admittedly one of those being the 30-minute cameo against Wolves.
The 27-year-old’s numbers in terms of expected goals and assists, and shots on target per 90 are also considerably down on his previous two seasons at United, while the percentage of passes being intercepted or going out of play are up.
Yet despite all that, only Ronaldo has scored more league goals this term than his international team-mate, while only Paul Pogba has registered more assists.
In terms of shot-creating actions, Fernandes is second in the United squad, and in Europe he’s performed much more consistently, chalking up an assist in every Champions League game he’s played this term.
Can Fernandes play in a 4-2-2-2?
Rangnick’s offensive midfielders in this 4-2-2-2 system are neither true wingers nor real No.10s, but a hybrid of both.
In the last two matches they’ve certainly been closer to traditional wide players, with Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood looking to cut inside and Rangnick referring to the formation as a ‘4-4-2’ when out of possession.
The conundrum for Fernandes now is whether he can find a way to adapt to this unorthodox set-up, discover his own groove cutting inside from the left and create chances for two centre-forwards.
Given that Rangnick has 12 days between Premier League fixtures against Wolves and Aston Villa, the German may finally have a first real opportunity to extensively work on tactics at the training ground.
Alternatively, given how United have fared so far using 4-2-2-2, the former RB Leipzig manager may consider ditching the system in favour of one that gives him more support in the centre.
The United boss highlighted how suspect the Red Devils were in that area against Wolves, while they definitely improved in the second half once Fernandes was introduced and they switched to a 3-5-2 shape.
What next for Fernandes?
It’s difficult to know what’s next for man who has so consistently thrived at Old Trafford, and given Fernandes’ undeniable quality, this is likely only a bump in the road.
But with the issues surrounding form, position, tactics and on-field connections, there is certainly a problem that must be addressed.
It was around this time two years ago that Fernandes joined a misfiring United and single-handedly drove them towards a Champions League place - his showings in the second half of the campaign could go a long way in determining whether United can expect to again be at European football’s top table next term.