Imagine how Manchester United’s season would have played out without Bruno Fernandes, without the 24 goals he has scored and the other 14 he’s assisted with.
They certainly wouldn’t be sitting comfortably in second position in the Premier League, looking down loftily on the scramble for the Champions League places beneath them.
It’s quite possible they would be where Arsenal are, drifting along in the mediocrity of mid-table and being chided about their worthiness for the European Super League.
It’s been an exhausting season for Fernandes, who has missed just two Man United games
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems completely reliant on the Portuguese and rarely leaves him out
Would Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still be their manager? It’s highly unlikely. They may have exited the UEFA Europa League some time ago, too, and wouldn’t have a semi-final with Roma to look forward to.
But Fernandes has been the saviour of Solskjaer’s tenure, the talismanic presence that has inspired United out of the ordinary and the bedrock of their notable improvement as a team this season.
The trouble is, Fernandes has become so important to United that we’ve reached the point where Solskjaer simply cannot contemplate not playing him.
Only defenders Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have played more minutes than the 4,013 of Fernandes across all competitions this season. Add to that the 609 played for Portugal.
There have been only two matches out of United’s 53 this season – a third round FA Cup tie at home to Championship side Watford in January and a Carabao Cup fourth round match at Brighton in September – when Fernandes hasn’t featured.
The goals have dried up for Fernandes, with his penalty against Manchester City in March one of just two he has scored in his last 14 matches for United
He also scored in the first leg of United’s Europa League quarter-final tie against Granada
Most minutes for Man United in 2020-21
Minutes played in all competitions for Manchester United this season
4,395 – Harry Maguire
4,184 – Aaron Wan-Bissaka
4,013 – Bruno Fernandes
3,704 – Marcus Rashford
3,549 – Victor Lindelof
Sometimes you look at the United teamsheet and wonder why Fernandes is on it. He started the second leg of United’s Europa League tie with Real Sociedad in February – did Solskjaer truly fear his team could blow a 4-0 lead?
When they played Granada in the quarter-finals, Fernandes was kept on for 73 minutes even though United led 3-0 on aggregate after Edinson Cavani’s sixth-minute goal.
He played the entire 90 minutes when United beat Southampton 9-0 in February. Leading by four at half-time, against 10 men, surely it presented a golden opportunity to give Fernandes a bit of rest? Obviously not.
Maybe Solskjaer just doesn’t dare risk it without the Portuguese star. When he started him on the bench at Leicester in the FA Cup quarter-finals last month, United were completely outplayed and lost 3-1.
Fernandes may be good but he can’t turn back the tide and the 26-minute appearance he did make off the bench at the King Power Stadium couldn’t change the outcome.
Yet surely if Fernandes had been given a night off at some other point, he could have started at Leicester, made an impact and United could have an FA Cup final to look forward to.
This reliance is starting to catch up with Fernandes, who must be absolutely knackered. It shows in the fact he has scored only twice in his last 14 matches for United – penalties in the away wins over Manchester City and Granada.
It’s little wonder Fernandes has looked fatigued after playing so much for United this season
Fernandes hands the captain’s armband over to Juan Mata during the home leg of the Europa League tie with Granada – a rare occasion he has been substituted off
It’s certainly a drop-off in that regard. In the 14 games before this barren run, he netted eight times. In the 14 before that, he scored 10 goals.
There’s always the caveat that 11 of his goals this season have been penalties but every team needs a reliable spot-kick taker and Fernandes is absolutely that.
He is the team’s leading scorer this season and has found the net at crucial moments, especially during the first half of the campaign when United took a step back for every two forward.
But obviously his contribution extends far beyond that and what is remarkable is that his creativity, passing and dribbling remains apparently undiminished by creeping fatigue.
Fernandes has proved himself a reliable penalty-taker, scoring 11 from the spot this season
The goals may have dried up in the last 14 matches but Fernandes has maintained standards in other measures. Source: Opta
His goals may have dried up but Fernandes has created as many chances in those last 14 games (29) than in the 14 prior to that when he was more prolific. It appears he just isn’t taking them.
His passing accuracy remains at an impressive 80.6 per cent, albeit from slightly fewer passes, and he is actually attempting and completing more dribbles.
More than ever, it seems, Fernandes is trying to be United’s game-changer and force the issue.
Yet Solskjaer will demand more of him yet. With a return to the Champions League next season essentially in the bag, the manager now craves the first trophy of his time in charge.
Winning the Europa League will represent an enormous breakthrough for the Norwegian manager.
Winning the Europa League this season will represent an enormous breakthrough for Solskjaer
They have failed in four semi-finals during his near two-and-a-half years in charge, so overcoming Roma to set up a final against either Arsenal or Villarreal would be major progress.
Going all the way in the competition could be the beginning of something special.
Surely now is the time to employ some game management with Fernandes, prioritise the European games and rest him for a Premier League run-in that includes fixtures against Aston Villa, Fulham and Wolves.
If he doesn’t, Solskjaer will have to hope and pray Fernandes isn’t running on fumes.