When Bruno Fernandes was told he might have to change his style of play due to Erik ten Hag’s appointment as Manchester United manager, the Portuguese appeared defensive.
“What do you mean by ‘tweak’?” He asked. “He wants me to provide assists anyway, so I have to try. I don’t understand that kind of question about keeping the ball or anything.
“I keep the ball when I think I have to keep it. I try a pass when I think I have to. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.
“When it goes bad I know it shouldn’t be, but sometimes when you play in position 10 you only have a few seconds to think and control the ball and make the pass.
“I understand that someone has their own opinion, but when I came to 2020 I was losing the same number of balls in those six months.
”The year after, I lost the same number of balls, but I scored 28 goals, so people are not complaining.
“Last season, because I only scored 10, people start complaining. I’m okay with that. I try my best. I always try to help my teammates. Obviously, I I will have to do what the coach demands of me.”
The question was understandable. Fernandes developed a reputation for being loose in possession. As he points out, his appetite to shake things up for the team with ambitious use of the ball is celebrated when it works. To be fair to the Portugal international, it worked out a lot.
Since Fernandes made his Premier League debut in February 2020, only Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances in the competition. The Belgian created 218 chances compared to 214 for Fernandes. No one else comes close.
But it’s also true that Fernandes gives up the ball more than most. In fact, since that Premier League debut, only Trent Alexander-Arnold has lost possession more times.
In the case of Alexander-Arnold and others at the top of this list – fellow Liverpool full-back Andy Robertson, Burnley’s Dwight McNeil and Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse – it makes sense given their responsibility to put crosses in the box.
This is perhaps most visible with Fernandes, whose decision-making in possession sees him attempting plenty of angular passes and lovely through balls from central areas. Sometimes it can look like he’s trying to force a spectacular pass that just isn’t in progress.
But the stats also support the player’s argument that his approach to the game hasn’t changed since day one.
His passing accuracy in that first half-season at Manchester United, when his impact helped close a 14-point gap over Leicester City and propel the club into the Champions League places, was 75.7 per cent. . It was actually higher than that at 78.3% last season.
Indeed, statistics show that Fernandes loses possession of the ball less regularly over the seasons. The number went from 22.9 times per 90 minutes in his first season to 21.0 times in his second season and 19.1 times last time.
Simply put, Fernandes isn’t losing it any more than before.
What has changed is the output. However, even here there is a caveat. Its fortuitous creation has not noticeably declined. He was creating 2.26 chances per 90 minutes in his first season. This figure increased to 2.75 in the second season and was still up to 2.56 in the 2021/22 season.
One of the differences that accentuated the drop in perceived creativity was his teammates’ ability to complete opportunities. For example, he provided seven assists in his first season, but his expected assists figure was down to just 2.34.
Helpfully, his colleagues continued to put the ball into the net.
In the 2020/21 season, when United finished second, Fernandes had 12 assists. Again, his teammates outdid themselves given the quality of the openings. His assists figure was 9.67.
Last season, his assist count dropped to six, but the expected assist count for those opportunities was actually higher at 6.93. Still down from the previous season, but nothing like the difference suggested by the bald assist numbers.
Perhaps that’s why Fernandes seems so defiant and upbeat that he doesn’t need to adapt his game. Speaking in an exclusive interview with sky sports, he noted the biggest forward movement so far in the pre-season. It will be to his advantage.
The suspicion persists that Ten Hag might want him to take more care of the ball. The example of Donny van de Beek seems relevant. In his final season under Ten Hag at Ajax, his passing accuracy was 82.2% while playing as a number 10 in Amsterdam.
But the stats also show Van de Beek has created fewer chances from that position than Fernandes continues to do for Manchester United. It’s the risk and the reward. Fernandes, it seems, received no indication that he needed to change anything.
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