Bruno Fernandes was back to his best against Real Betis

CHRIS WHEELER: Bruno Fernandes was back to his best and the stand-out player on the pitch against Real Betis after the hardest week of his Man United career… but it’s unclear if he has what it takes to be club captain ahead of an important summer

  • Fernandes netted United’s third goal of the game before falling to his knees
  • He has captained United regularly but could be better without the armband
  • It’s unclear what the summer holds with Erik ten Hag likely to spend again 

Bruno Fernandes slid on his knees in front of the Stretford End and cupped a hand to each ear. It’s a celebration we have seen many times before from the Manchester United star, but this time it had more feeling.

The ritual is actually a tribute to his young daughter Matilde. Anyone who witnessed Fernandes’ celebration after scoring United’s third goal in the 4-1 Europa League win over Real Betis on Thursday night, however, could be forgiven for reading more into it on this occasion.

This has been a difficult week for Fernandes, arguably the toughest of his United career. Not only were United humiliated 7-0 by bitter rivals Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, the man wearing the captain’s armband was widely criticised for his petulant behaviour and lack of leadership.

Gary Neville branded Fernandes ‘a disgrace’. Others said United should find an alternative skipper when Harry Maguire isn’t playing, which is most weeks these days.

The issue dominated the build-up to the last 16 tie against Betis. Indeed, when Eric ten Hag turned up for his pre-match press conference on Wednesday, sources say the one message the United manager wanted to get across was his belief in Fernandes, and that was made quite clear to us at Carrington.

Bruno Fernandes fell to his knees after scoring Man United’s third goal against Real Betis

The midfielder headed in from Luke Shaw’s corner after the most difficult week of his United career

So when United’s No.8 powered in a header from Luke Shaw’s corner in the second half – not the way we’re used to seeing Fernandes scoring – the feeling of relief and release was understandable. This time the hands to the ears felt like a direct message to his detractors.

The fans rose to salute him. There was a genuine outpouring of love and support, which was equally understandable. Fernandes is a popular player and probably United’s best over a period of time since he arrived from Sporting Lisbon in January 2020 in a deal that could be worth up to £63million.

His stats since then are quite something. The goal and assist for Marcus Rashford’s opener against Betis took him to 58 goals and 57 assists in 167 games for the club.

But this is where the two strands of the debate diverge.

Fernandes has now registered 58 goals and 57 assists in 167 games since joining United

The outpouring of emotion was clear to see when he scored at Old Trafford on Thursday night

There is no questioning Fernandes’ value to United. He has been one of the club’s outstanding performers for the last three years, and showed it again at Old Trafford on Thursday night when he was the best player by some distance. He has a talismanic quality. Speak to anyone who has been involved in Fernandes’ career from an early age and they all say the same.

He has been a key asset to Ten Hag, just as he was to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.

But does that make him a Manchester United captain?

When Solskjaer handed Fernandes the armband for the first time before a Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain in October 2020, no-one was more surprised than the player himself. Fernandes’ raised eyebrows as Solskjaer broke the news during a press conference via Zoom from Parc des Princes that day said it all.

Back then, however, United were hardly flush with captains on the few occasions Maguire wasn’t available. The starting line-up in Paris read: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Tuanzebe, Shaw, Telles, Fred, McTominay, Fernandes, Rashford, Martial.

United manager Erik ten Hag has made the move to bring more leaders into the United team

One of the many steps forward that Ten Hag has taken since his appointment last year was to identify the lack of leaders in the squad he inherited. By signing Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Christian Eriksen, Ten Hag not only brought in three hugely talented players but three big characters as well.. There are more options now.

Ten Hag will spend again this summer when Maguire is set to leave Old Trafford and United will need a permanent captain. The Dutchman has thrown his support behind Fernandes, but whether he’s the best man for the job beyond this season is another matter.

Some players are too emotional to carry a broader responsibility for the team, and Fernandes arguably falls into that category. The arm waving, the play-acting, the haranguing of referees and lapses of discipline are not what you look for in a captain.

The United No 8 was booked for a challenge on Claudio Bravo, which could have been a red

Ten Hag has admitted that Fernandes ‘sometimes has to control’ his passion on the pitch

Against Real Betis, for instance, he was booked for leaving a foot in on goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and the card could easily have been red.

‘It’s his passion but sometimes he has to control that,’ said Ten Hag. ‘It’s his strength but when it’s too much, it becomes a weakness.’ Wise words. But like so many great players, to take away the passion is to reduce the player. Fernandes is a man who needs to play with heart but not necessarily with a band around his arm.

Paul Scholes gets it. The United legend questioned Fernandes’ leadership credentials before the Betis game. ‘Your captain has to be an influence, a leader, calming down characters like him (Fernandes),’ said Scholes.

‘I’d be concerned if United are going for the title in March or April. I don’t think having him as your captain would be ideal. Going forward, bigger games, going for trophies, Champions League finals, a captain with less emotion might be better.’ Afterwards Scholes described his performance as ‘brilliant’. The two thoughts can go hand in hand, and maybe that is what Fernandes’ supporters need to realise. He can be a star without being the captain.

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