A midfield masterclass from Bruno Fernandes and Fred guided Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United to the last 16 of the Europa League, crucially against traditionally ‘weaker’ opposition.
Solskjaer’s tactics had gone very much against the plan in Bruges, sloppy defending from a corner and haphazard play gifting their hosts an opener, with United fortunate to come away with a goal and a draw when they deserved far worse.
The team and manager appeared complacent, particularly Solskjaer and his willingness to rest players, despite the magnitude the Europa League has for United this season – it still may be their best chance of securing Champions League football next campaign.
It wasn’t a mistake that the Norwegian would make once more, reverting to a 4-2-3-1 and dropping seven players from the starting lineup, notably bringing Fernandes and Fred back into the heart of his midfield.
Having rung the changes, this time round it all worked perfectly at Old Trafford as United ran out comfortable victors, but it was Fernandes and Fred who vindicated Solskjaer’s decisions more than any other player in the pitch.
On a night that saw their biggest home win since December 2011, Fred picked up the Man of the Match award for his impressive contributions, netting twice, garnering 113 touches, a 92% pass completion rate, and an imperious six recoveries from midfield. The night truly belonged to the Red Devils.
Apart from a possible penalty appeal in the third minute of the match and a good opportunity spurned by Mats Rits in the 11th, the game looked in United’s hands from the beginning. A bizarre handball by Simon Deli gifted United, and Fernandes, the opener from the spot in the 27th.
Seven minutes later, Odion Ighalo nabbed his first goal for the club, assisted by Mata but crafted by Fernandes with a delicately lofted ball to the byline. Come minute 41, United’s press saw the ball drop to Fernandes, finding Fred who in turn teed up Scott McTominay, who marked his return with a goal before halftime.
Two more goals by Fred towards the end of the match sealed an emphatic night at Old Trafford, which have been few and far between this season, but importantly extended the club’s unbeaten run to seven, with just one goal conceded in those games, including fixtures away at Manchester City and Chelsea.
Sitting behind Ighalo, who himself showed willingness to attack the six-yard line and drop deep to collect the ball and proved Anthony Martial’s inabilities as a true centre-forward, Fernandes was able to dictate the press of United and interlink number of times with Juan Mata, who frequently found space coming in from the right to support Fernandes.
Assured by the creative presence in front of him, Fred was able to make runs from deeper to support his teammates who sat before him, a chunk of responsibility removed from his shoulders as he begins to grow into his £52 million price tag. It is precisely runs from midfield which saw him find space to score twice, assisted by Jesse Lingard and Tahith Chong.
But Fernandes’ numbers speak for themselves, as he registered 75 touches, 48 passes in Brugge territory, five recoveries, and three chances created. Regardless of his £68 million fee, he’s proving to be the club’s best signing for a long time.
Although there will always be cries and statements that it’s only Club Brugge, it’s that it is Brugge which makes for a far more significant fact than it would suggest. While advancing to the next round is a big step for United, the demolition of Brugge also suggests an ability to best a team who are, in theory, meant to be worse than other opposition.
The best way to phrase it may be that United, at least a few months ago, would have been better off drawing Inter Milan in the next round than Austrian side LASK.
It’s been the inability to surpass teams worse than themselves which has been the bane and embarrassment of United’s season, a key part of the explanation for why they reside in fifth and not third.
A team that beats Chelsea, City, Spurs, and Leicester should not also lose to Burnley and Bournemouth. With the next game away at a high-flying Everton, which may suit a United who could do with a game reliant on the counter-attack one more, there are tests aplenty to come.
However, it would do well for the club to be wary of false dawns, which have become something of a feature under Solskjaer. His opening games as interim manager were followed by a disaster class when appointed full time.
A week that saw victory over City and Spurs saw a lacklustre draw again Everton and defeat at Watford a few weeks later.
But the reason for the failure to break down teams when enjoying possession, when being the more dominant side, is lacking the right players to do just that. And the signing of Bruno Fernandes is proving to unlock this, in the process enabling those around him, notably Mata, to return to their playmaking best now the burden is lifted.
Pessimism has clouded Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson parted ways at the end of the 2013 season, a smog lifted by the FA Cup or Europa League, but one that returned just as quickly as it left and often in part because of the dreadful transfer policy the club enacted.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 28, 2020
Now, though, the transfers the club made are all actually working. Last year United had conceded 36 goals in the Premier League at this stage of the season, seven more than the current tally.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has made the right-back position his own, and regardless of his hefty fee, Harry Maguire has assured the entire team, not least of all because his rampaging runs forward throw another man forward and provide options to an increasingly confident midfield.
Solskjaer may well have a selection headache when Paul Pogba makes his eventual return, if he does so at all. Fred and McTominay have both done more than enough to argue for a place in the team, and even Nemanja Matic proved resurgent during McTominay’s injury.
Fernandes, well, he’s undroppable. While the club seems to be stepping in the right direction after seven years, only time will tell.