Football | Bruno Fernandes' instant impact at Manchester United
If Bruno Fernandes is feeling the pressure of being compared to a mix between Paul Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he's doing a good job of hiding it.
Solskjaer has a Gatsbyesque penchant for being borne back into the past, but Fernandes looks like a player who be the catalyst for Manchester United's future.
The Portugal international's impact at the Red Devils has been instant since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon last month.
His nonchalantly dispatched penalty to open the scoring in United's 5-0 demolition of 10-man Club Brugge at Old Trafford was a sign of a player unburdened by a hefty transfer fee and supporters' lofty expectations.
Having successfully converted each of his last 13 penalties in top-flight football, it was little surprise to see Fernandes coolly slot the ball past Simon Mignolet from 12 yards after Brugge defender Simon Deli's inexplicable hand ball.
It was his second goal in as many games, becoming the first Portuguese player to accomplish that feat for United since Nani in 2012.
United, who had drawn the reverse leg 1-1 in Belgium, had weathered one or two scares in the opening 20 minutes, but Deli's senseless red card allowed United to cruise into the last 16.
Starting in the number 10 position, 24-year-old Fernandes was once again at the heart of their attacking play. He almost gave Solskjaer's side the lead from 25 yards in just the third minute, forcing Mignolet to divert his powerful low drive on to the post.
It was also his deflected flick that teed up James' strike which was handled by Deli. After then giving the home side the lead, Fernandes was heavily involved in the hosts' next two goals.
2012 - Bruno Fernandes is the first Portuguese to net in consecutive appearances for Manchester United in all competitions since Nani April 2012. Arrived. #UEFAEuropaLeague pic.twitter.com/B2W8vLTTA2 — OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 27, 2020
In the 34th minute, he cut a composed figure as he twisted and turned skillfully on the edge of the Brugge box, before carefully weighting a clever lofted pass to Juan Mata at the back post.
Mata cushioned the ball across the six yard box for January loan signing Odion Ighalo to tap home his first goal for the club.
Fernandes' role in United's third goal was less flashy, but equally important.
Five minutes before the interval, the midfielder intercepted an under hit pass near the Brugge corner flag and found Fred with a quick-fire pass.
The Brazilian midfielder pulled the ball back to the edge of the box for the onrushing Scott McTominay, who produced a brilliant side-footed finish into the bottom corner from 18 yards.
McTominay, making his return from injury, was also excellent at the heart of United's midfield.
United added two further goals in the second half, with Jesse Lingard providing an open goal for Fred, before the Brazil international curled home a delightful second in stoppage time.
Fernandes had unsurprisingly departed to a rapturous applause in the 64th minute.
"He's a bit of a mix between Scholes and Veron to be fair, the temperament of Veron and a lot of the quality of him and Scholes." Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
While admittedly facing weak opponents, there were plenty of encouraging signs for United.
This was their biggest European win since their 5-0 triumph Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League group stages in November 2013.
The Red Devils are now unbeaten in seven matches, and have kept six clean sheets in that period.
Much has been made over United's midfield struggles over the past few years, but are they finally starting to find solutions?
As mentioned above, McTominay impressed on his return, and Fred tripled his United tally with a second half brace.
The three central midfielders scored four of United's goals in the Europa League tie. The early signs suggest Fernandes could be what United fans expected from Paul Pogba upon his return from Turin, without the baggage.
Fernandes celebrates his penalty
Fernandes exudes confidence; assuming responsibility, demanding the ball, trying the audacious.
On his Premier League debut against Wolves, he made more passes and had more shots than any other player on the pitch.
Last weekend, he had a hand in all three of United's goals against Watford at Old Trafford.
After notching his first goal for his new club from the penalty spot after being fouled by Ben Foster inside the area, he was involved in Anthony Martial's goal and provided the assist for Mason Greenwood for United's third.
With Pogba seemingly nearing the exit door at Old Trafford, the addition of Fernandes significantly softens the blow of his impending departure. World Cup winning midfielder
Pogba has long been touted as a player to build a team around, but the Frenchman has never consistently produced his best form at United.
Managers have struggled to find his best position, and what midfield role to use the former Juventus man in.
There will be no such worries with Fernandes.He has already shown what he can bring to the number 10 role, and could also play deeper if required.
That leaves Solskjaer with two defensive players from the trio of McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic to choose from, presuming Pogba leaves the club as his agent Mino Raiola seems to so desperately desire.
Despite his mixed form at Old Trafford, Pogba will still command an enormous fee. The income from his sale could allow Solskjaer to strengthen other areas of the team, much the way Liverpool used the funds from Philippe Coutinho's move to Barcelona to buy Alisson and Virgil van Dijk.
👏 @B_Fernandes8 goes off to a HUGE standing ovation, and @JesseLingard is on in his place. 65 minutes played at Old Trafford.#MUFC #UEL pic.twitter.com/uUrvSzJSSY — Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 27, 2020
Having invested heavily in a right back and a centre back in the summer, Ole may look to strengthen his central midfield options should Pogba move on, though the addition of a forward and another centre back to partner Harry Maguire remain priorities.
Fernandes' quality in an advanced midfield position allows Ole to focus on the central areas behind the former Sporting midfielder.
The early signs are hugely encouraging, but bigger tests lie ahead for United's exciting new playmaker.
United face a trip to Everton in the Premier League on Monday, followed by a journey to Derby in the FA Cup and a home clash against champions Manchester City in the Manchester derby.
After that, they will take on Champions League hopefuls Spurs in North London and Sheffield United at Old Trafford.
As it stands, the Red Devils are fifth in the top flight, three points behind Chelsea in fourth. Given City's ban from European football, fifth will likely be enough to seal the last remaining Champions League place.
Consistency has been the issue for United under Ole, but there are signs of improvement in recent weeks.
The test now for the team, and for Fernandes, is to maintain this form.
Fernandes has made an eye-catching start to life in England, but now he must kick on and succeed where others have failed, by producing world class performances on a regular basis.