Imagine how Manchester United’s season would have gone without Bruno Fernandes, without the 24 goals he has scored and the other 14 he has assisted with.
They certainly wouldn’t sit comfortably in second place in the Premier League and look down on the battle for the Champions League places among them.
It is entirely possible that they would be where Arsenal are, drifting into the mediocrity of the center table and being scolded for their dignity for the European Super League.
It’s been an exhausting season for Fernandes, who has only missed two Man United games
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems completely dependent on the Portuguese and rarely leaves him out
Would Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still be their manager? It is highly unlikely. They may also have left the UEFA Europa League some time ago and would not have a semi-final with Roma to look forward to.
But Fernandes has been the savior of Solskjaer’s tenure, the talisman-like presence that has inspired United beyond belief, and the foundation of their remarkable improvement as a team this season.
The problem is that Fernandes has become so important to United that we have reached the point where Solskjaer simply cannot consider not playing him.
Only defenders Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have played more minutes this season than Fernandes’s 4,013 in all competitions. Add to that the 609 played for Portugal.
There have been only two of United’s 53 games this season – a third round FA Cup draw at home against championship side Watford in January and a fourth round Carabao Cup match in Brighton in September – if Fernandes wasn’t there.
The goals for Fernandes have dried up, with his penalty against Manchester City in March one of only two he has scored in his last 14 appearances for United.
He also scored in United’s first leg of the Europa League quarter-final against Granada
Most minutes for Man United in 2020-21
Played minutes in all competitions for Manchester United this season
4395 – Harry Maguire
4,184 – Aaron Wan-Bissaka
4.013 – Bruno Fernandes
3,704 – Marcus Rashford
3,549 – Victor Lindelof
Source: Transfer market
Sometimes you look at the United team magazine and wonder why Fernandes is on it. He started the second leg of United’s Europa League game with Real Sociedad in February – was Solskjaer really worried that his team could blow a 4-0 lead?
When they played against Granada in the quarter-finals, Fernandes was held for 73 minutes, even though United were 3-0 ahead of the aggregate after Edinson Cavani’s goal in the sixth minute.
He played the entire 90 minutes when United beat Southampton 9-0 in February. With a four lead at half-time, against 10 men, wasn’t that a golden opportunity to give Fernandes some rest? Obviously not.
Perhaps Solskjaer just doesn’t dare to do without the Portuguese star. When he started him on the bench in Leicester in the FA Cup quarter-finals last month, United was played out completely and lost 3-1.
Fernandes may be good, he can’t turn the tide and the 26-minute performance he made off the bench at King Power Stadium couldn’t change the outcome.
But had Fernandes got a night off at another time, he certainly could have started in Leicester, made an impression and United could have had an FA Cup final to look forward to.
This dependence is starting to catch up with Fernandes, who must be absolutely broken. This is evidenced by the fact that he has only scored twice in his last 14 appearances for United – penalties in the away wins over Manchester City and Granada.
It’s no wonder Fernandes looked tired after playing so much for United this season
Fernandes hands the captain’s armband to Juan Mata during the home of the Europa League match against Granada – a rare occasion he has been substituted.
It’s certainly a drop-off in that regard. In the 14 games prior to this barren run, he scored eight times. In the 14 before that, he scored 10 goals.
There’s always the caveat that 11 of his goals this season were penalties, but every team needs a reliable spot-kicker and Fernandes definitely is.
He has been the team’s top scorer this season and has found the net at crucial moments, especially during the first half of the season, when United stepped back for every two forwards.
But his contribution clearly goes much further and what’s remarkable is that his creativity, passing and dribbling seemingly remains unaffected by creeping fatigue.
Fernandes has proven to be a reliable penalty taker, scoring 11 from the spot this season
The goals may have dried up in the last 14 games, but Fernandes has maintained the standards in other measures. Source: Opta
His goals may have dried up, but Fernandes has created just as many chances in those last 14 games (29) as in the previous 14 when he was more productive. Looks like he just doesn’t take them.
His passing accuracy stays at an impressive 80.6 percent, albeit from slightly fewer passes, and he actually tries and completes more dribbles.
More than ever, it seems, Fernandes is trying to be United’s game changer and force the issue.
Still, Solskjaer will demand even more from him. With a return to the Champions League next season essentially in the bag, the manager is now craving the first trophy of his time at the helm.
Winning the Europa League means a huge breakthrough for the Norwegian manager.
Winning the Europa League this season is a huge breakthrough for Solskjaer
They failed in four semifinals during his nearly two and a half years in the lead, so beating Roma to host a final against Arsenal or Villarreal would be a big step forward.
Getting all the way into the game can be the start of something special.
Now is definitely the time to put some game management into Fernandes, prioritize European games and give him a rest for a Premier League run-in with matches against Aston Villa, Fulham and Wolves.
If he doesn’t, Solskjaer will have to hope and pray that Fernandes doesn’t run on fumes.