For Bruno Fernandes this must have felt a bit like a coronation. For the last two months there have been rumours of the rebirth of the Manchester United midfield, of gears beginning to clunk into place, those oddly assembled component parts finding their rhythms. The Manchester United midfield? Yeah, I remember that. Oh no, it’s been years now.
Well, look again. At a damp and increasingly boisterous Old Trafford Fernandes produced a central midfield performance that seemed to go against the tide of the last decade or so. So often United’s declining fortunes have been characterised by something ponderous at the heart of the team, a club drained not just of success, but of spirit and invention.
This, though, was something else. United were deserved 2-0 winners against Manchester City at Old Trafford. In the middle of which Fernandes produced surely the best midfield display any United player has mustered up against City since the balance of power swung decisively.
Midfield has been a painful place at times against the passing sprites of City’s better teams. But for the first time in some time United shed the inferiority complex and came here to play.
It all sprung from Fernandes, who has been that rare thing in the last two months: not just an expensive, talented player, but the expensive, talented player United actually needed, bringing craft and skill but also something expressive and extrovert. Imagine a Paul Pogba who actually wants to be there. Well, here he is.
Fernandes had played in seven instalments of United’s 10-game unbeaten streak before today. This, though, was a step-up, a visit from the great colonising force of the European midfield, a team created by a man who dreams of turning the whole world a shade of midfield and whose teams will spend every second trying to run and pass and move you to death in the centre of the pitch. Over to you then, Bruno.
He began just ahead of the double-pivot of Fred and Nemanja Matic. It is the most varied and balanced-looking midfield United have been able to put out in some time: one to give it, one to wander around like a decommissioned Dalek, one to offer a sense of creative promise.
Clearly Fernandes and Fred have something going on. There was a nice fizzed exchange early on, one of several moments when they seemed to be just enjoying themselves, bantering the ball about between them, enjoying the repartee. Teams are often quite simple things. This stuff is important,
On 15 minutes there was a slick, high-speed Fred-to-Fernandes link-up that fed Dan James for a shot that was straight at Ederson, the shot of player who hasn’t scored since August, 36 games ago.
And between them they made the opening goal shortly afterwards.
First Fernandes won a free-kick on the left, drawing a very fine touch from Ilkay Gündogan, enough to activate the familiarly acute Portuguese pain threshold. Fernandes collapsed with a howl of pain. City’s players protested. They have presumably been watching for the last 20 years or so.
Fernandes sprung up and stood with Fred over the free-kick. Was it a planned move? Possibly, given the talk of Fernandes’ extreme dedication to training and prep. First there was the lovely little sheen of misdirection as Fernandes raised his right arm and looked vaguely the other way, distracted by idle thoughts of a back-post hoof, a whip, a punt, a sideways roll.
Martial darted in behind the blue line. As he began to move Fernandes swung a leg back like a golfer measuring his chip to the green and played a beautiful, impudent little back-spun dink over the retreating blue shirts, the ball seeming to float, to stop for a moment, before dipping into Martial’s path.
Planning is one thing, execution is another, and this was a moment of cold, hard technical brilliance in the middle of all that noise.
The shot from Martial was low and struck well enough, but Ederson should have saved it. Sergio Agüero won’t enjoy the replay either. A broader question is why Agüero was defending in that spot in the first place.
City improved after the break. The blue shirts began to spread the play from side to side. The Fred-Fernandes supply line fell apart. There was a period of massed defence but no really clear alarms for all City’s possession. At the death Scott McTominay sealed the game with a fine long-range finish after a hurried throw from Ederson left him with an open goal to aim at.
It can be strange how football’s crisis klaxon works. A while back United were fifth in the league, a financial basket case and playing poorly, drawing talk of the darkest of dusks, at the tipping point beyond which Salford itself would be consumed with hellfire. Two months on United are in fifth spot, still a financial basket case, but playing well. And suddenly soft music is playing and the buds of spring have nuzzled up through the soil. It will take more than one fine and timely signing to take this team on from here. But one at least thing is certain. Rumours of the re-birth of Manchester United’s midfield appear to be entirely accurate.