Bruno Fernandes naysayers overlook just how important he is for United

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Bruno Fernandes;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Bruno Fernandes</a> has been accused of play-acting, with <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Fulham;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Fulham</a>’s official TikTok even joining in this week.</span><span>Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images</span>

Bruno Fernandes is Manchester United’s 2020s version of Roy Keane: vocal, aggressive, fiercely competitive, highly talented and deemed by his manager to be the obvious captain. The Portuguese is all these things, especially in a United vintage that is among the weakest of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

If Ferguson viewed Keane as his alpha male, the Irishman was surrounded by stellar acts in Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Jaap Stam and numerous others. At different times, all had an argument for being the Premier League’s best player in their position. Fernandes does not enjoy the same supporting A-list cast. In a team game he looks around the pitch each week and sees maybe only Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martínez, when they are fit, who are his equal.

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Here, then, we find another Fernandes parallel with Keane that has a diverging outcome. The images of Ferguson’s captain serially haranguing referees – and leading teammates to follow – remain clear in the mind’s eye, close to two decades after he left United. But Keane was in a side that dominated in his 12 years at the club, in eight of which he was captain. Criticism may have been muted due to the law of admiration that can place observers in thrall to the serial winner.

What would happen if Keane were dropped into Erik ten Hag’s United side? His ability would still be obvious, but that fierce drive for victory would be more regularly analysed as pathetic and petulant, as is the case with Fernandes. Keane had a violent element, as Gareth Southgate or Alf-Inge Haaland could confirm. Fernandes does not. His body language, though, receives scathing reviews. Yet if Fernandes were bounding around the field like a spring lamb during United’s many off days, how would this be assessed?

As Ten Hag says: “What you see is the character of a player expressed in their body language and that is not a thing that you can change in a short time. Bruno is a good example of this. I have seen he wants to win and so he shows his emotion and that is an absolute strength from him to push his own team. He shows how much he wants to win so that others around him pick it up and go and fight with it.”

The Fernandes persona is a Keane-like cocktail of referee-berating and in-your-face feistiness. The former characteristic is one that winds up opponents, their fans and a large swathe of the pundit class, who love to declaim on the United captain.

Fernandes faces another accusation that was never levelled at Keane: play-acting, with his naysayers seeing a thespian ready to perform a quasi-dying act whenever any defender moves to within range. But accusing a player of falling over if an opponent merely exhales nearby can be a fool’s game.

Fulham are the latest to show why after they posted a TikTok clip of Fernandes hitting the Old Trafford turf after a coming together with Sasa Lukic in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Cottagers. It was edited with a slapstick soundtrack and captioned with “So glad he’s ok” and a “hmm” emoji. Ten Hag bristled when made aware of the clip and has called for an apology.

The Dutchman is adamant Fernandes suffered injury in the incident and only his desire drove him on to play in Wednesday’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat of Nottingham Forest. The 29-year-old laid on the winning goal for Casemiro, and was then grabbed around the throat by Felipe in stoppage time. There was little outcry beyond United fans on social media. If Fernandes had done the same, would we still be hearing about it now? Almost certainly.

What gets overlooked is just how good a footballer Fernandes is. United’s playmaker will lead his team out at the Etihad Stadium for Sunday’s 192nd derby against Manchester City, and Pep Guardiola is clear his threat has to be nullified.

“It’s always been like that, he can create something,” Guardiola said of Fernandes. “I am very impressed – he is an exceptional player. Especially the consistency of the player, in every single game in every single competition – I admire that a lot.

“He’s a guy when he has the ball something is going to happen – from free-kicks, set pieces, actions with the players up front, with [Marcus] Rashford, all the strikers there,” the Manchester City manager added. “So what can I say? He’s a really important player.”

Fernandes is rarely injured and his numbers since joining United from Sporting in January 2020 support the billing. His appearances in each campaign in United colours are 22, 58, 46, 59 – plus 35 and counting this season. His goal returns: 12, 28, 10, 14 and seven. Assists: eight, 17, 14, 15 and eight.

In last season’s corresponding fixture, United went down 6-3. With their side 4-0 behind at half-time at a jubilant Etihad Stadium, hordes of United fans departed before a final result that was made to look slightly less of a thrashing by Anthony Martial’s  goals on 84 and 90 minutes.

Fernandes was not in the XI that day because of injury. He and Ten Hag hope he can be a major difference this time. But it will be tough, as Fernandes continues to shine bright among far too many lesser lights.