ARTICLES Opinion

New season, same Bruno Fernandes

Manchester United’s 5-1 thrashing of rivals Leeds on Saturday marked a triumphant start to the 2021/22 Premier League season. The fans were finally back. Old Trafford was once again rocking. And Bruno Fernandes was in his element.

It feels like it has been forever since the Theatre of Dreams was filled to the brim with passionate Reds breaking into song. And it was only fitting that United opened up the new season at home, the same place where the football world as we know it came to a standstill back in March of last year.

On that day, Scott McTominay’s last second goal put the final nail in the coffin of the noisy neighbours in a 2-0 win. The Stretford End erupted. There were scenes like we haven’t seen since Sir Alex Ferguson called it a day. It felt like United were on their way back. It felt so normal. But the aftermath of that jubilant night was everything but.

The next 15 months or so were strange. Football came back eventually, but in empty stadiums. Nothing was normal. But United kept chipping away. The circumstances didn’t stop the process. And like many United legends in the past, Bruno was one of the players that kept United fans afloat. The Portuguese sniper was bringing happiness to millions of homes around the world every time he set foot on a football pitch in Manchester’s famous Red.

Unfortunately, nobody was on hand to witness his antics first hand, but Bruno spent all of last season gradually etching his name in the United folklore.

August 14, 2021 is a day that may very well remain in the memories of all fans — not only those who got to witness the magic in person — forever. Yes, on paper, it’s just another game of football. But in reality, it was so much more than that. It was another step back towards normality. The whole weekend felt like a national holiday; it was so good to see fans back, creating atmospheres like no playback crowd noise ever could.

And on that joyful Saturday lunchtime, it was only right for one man to steal the show. The already cemented cult hero who aspires to be so much more than just that, Bruno Fernandes only experienced a handful of true home games until then. And boy was he ready to go.

Manchester’s greatest showman turned up with a hat-trick and it felt like everything had just come full circle at Old Trafford. The scenes in the stands replicated those from 16 months ago. Football was back like it never left. Bruno was back like nothing had changed. And finally, he was embraced appropriately.

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What Bruno has done for Manchester United since his January 2020 arrival goes far beyond goals and assists. In addition to those, he helped re-light the fire. Ole Gunnar Solskjær spent the best part of that 2019/20 season searching for the spark. You could tell that something was brewing. And around the halfway point, Bruno brought the fire. He gave everyone a lift. The whole aura around the football club changed. He made everyone feel better and play better.

Sometimes all it takes is a player like that. We will not mention similar rival examples from around the league, but you get the hint. And this is not to give the whole credit to Bruno himself. But the proof is in the pudding. United’s results and progress since his arrival speak for themselves. His hunger to win set an example. Others followed.

And still, with all that said, the most impressive thing about Bruno is his output. He may not be tremendously impressive at times. Nor effective. But you are allowed to have those games. What he is on the other hand though is effective. And consistent. Always. Bruno on his worst day is a moments player. On his best, a bonafide superstar. Always capable of producing magic and winning games.

You would think that after a season in which he returned 46 goal contributions in all competitions people would believe the hype. But United’s No. 18 still entered the curtain raiser at Old Trafford with questions being asked. It’s certainly fair to question whether he will replicate his phenomenal output in its entirety. But to question his pedigree or ability is nothing short of insane. And he was quick to remind the doubters of that.

It was hard to imagine anyone else but Bruno scoring the first goal back in front of fans. The Portuguese slotted home a marvellous Paul Pogba through ball to send the stadium into a frenzy. His patented celebration was admired by 75 thousand Reds around him enjoying the fruits of his labour. At that point though, it didn’t feel as though the game would end up as special as it did.

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We talk about the mentality and the ‘United DNA’ often. Some choose to ridicule it. But if you take the time to closely study the work of Sir Alex over almost three decades — it exists. He created an empire. It’s a certain mindset that only those closely linked with United are capable of having and passing on. And those will also tell you that flashes of that special something have become visible in Solskjær’s United sides — and particularly this one.

Last season, United came from behind to win a countless amount of times. They never gave in. Even on bad days, they are learning how to grind out results. And in football, if you want to be a great team, it is so important not to let adversity phase you. It takes a process to get to that level. And after not losing once away from home in the league last season and struggling at home, United were always going to have to prove if they’ve really got it this season.

When Leeds emphatically equalized on Saturday, many of the post-Sir Alex teams would’ve crumbled. The sheer brilliance of Luke Ayling’s goal would have been a momentum shifter at any other ground. But not at Old Trafford and not against this United team. They seem different now. They are now a Solskjær team. Built from the type of cloth that fans all know and love.

Immediately after the goal, it felt almost like United were annoyed. They were provoked. They weren’t expecting to concede. They didn’t want to. They were dominating, in cruise control. But Leeds stood up to them, showing fearlessness. And that was the beginning of their downfall. United made an example out of their rivals and sent a statement.

The Reds went on to put on a 15-minute show — led by Bruno, directed by Pogba. The term champagne football comes to mind. The Portuguese bagged two more, including a spectacular first-time half-volley to complete his hat-trick. Pogba totalled four assists on the day before being given a standing ovation with around a quarter of an hour remaining. Leeds got punished for trying to stand up to the sleeping giant that Solskjær has been trying so hard to awaken.

“We’re very happy for this result, they (the fans) deserve this, they wait so long,” Fernandes said after the game. “Everyone is happy today. We know it’s a big game for them too – everyone is happy for this result.

My achievement every season is being better than the last one,” Bruno continued. “This season we have to for sure be better than last season and we will accomplish something with this mentality.”

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Ultimately, it all comes back down to the leader that wasn’t afraid to step up. Immediately after arriving, Bruno didn’t shy away from putting the team on his back. He wanted the pressure. He welcomed the challenge. He knew he had what it takes to be the main man and he made everyone else believe it. His goal and assist return for a midfielder often doesn’t make sense — but that’s just the type of player he is. He’s a showman.

As good as Fernandes was without any fans in attendance, he seems to feed off all the energy that surrounds him even more. He thrives when he has an audience to enjoy him. He doesn’t feel pressure. He is the type of act that deserves a big stage to perform on. Would it shock anyone if his numbers got even better now that every goal and assist will be met with a collective roar?

Saturday saw Bruno absolutely shatter the expected goals (xG) metrics, scoring three from a total of 0.6. He very often tends to do the unthinkable. He has the imagination and arrogance to keep trying things and that’s what makes him special and inspires others to be. When it doesn’t come off, he is criticized for it. But it doesn’t discourage the one person whose opinion matters.

He is a risk-taker, he always has been,” Solskjær told the media after the Leeds win. “He’s a Man United player, and when you are a forward player, you need to have confidence, a little bit of arrogance and take risks.”

It has been brewing for a while, but United finally do look like a proper team again. A team that is capable of challenging for the top honours. They have had their growing pains and setbacks and —with the additions of Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane — they may just be ready to win now. And whatever success does come this teams way — they will be known as Bruno’s team.

Fernandes may not be the best player on the team in terms of skills, technique and what have you. He may not be the highest profile player either. But he certainly is the best performer — comfortably. He lifted the club when they were near enough their lowest — injecting a major dose of hope into everyone associated with United. And when the success inevitably comes, he will be the first in line to receive his flowers.

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