The Portugal star was again in inspirational form against Leicester City, but failings at the other end of the pitch cost the visitors three points
As Bruno Fernandes doffed his imaginary magician’s hat to the television cameras inside the King Power Stadium early on Boxing Day afternoon, the Portugal international must have thought that he had won yet another important game for Manchester United.
Since his arrival in the January transfer window, Fernandes has rarely failed to deliver for the Red Devils, and against Leicester City he was yet again at the heart of everything good United did.
His toe-poked pass into the path of Marcus Rashford helped give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side a first-half lead over the Foxes before the ex-Sporting C.P. captain found the net himself after combining with substitute Edinson Cavani to make the score 2-1 with 11 minutes left on the clock.
Talk of Solskjaer’s side mounting a Premier League title challenge has been greeted with some quizzical looks at times in recent weeks. This was, of course, a team that shipped six against Tottenham and also lost at home to what is now looking like an increasingly desperate Arsenal side.
But credit must be given to a United side that have begun to grind out results domestically, and a win here would have seen them move to winthin two points of league leaders Liverpool having played the same number of games.
It was not to be, however, with defensive frailties costing Solskjaer’s team dear in the end.
After both Fernandes and Scott McTominay shared the blame for Harvey Barnes’ long-range equaliser in the first half, it was Eric Bailly who failed to stick with Jamie Vardy inside the penalty area inside the final five minutes that allowed the ex-England striker to ensure a share of the points via an Axel Tuanzebe deflection.
In a game where Brendan Rodgers’ side struggled to create clear-cut opportunities, it was hard not to think that this was a wasted opportunity for United to prove their title credentials against a side who still sit a place above them in the table.
Heading into this weekend’s fixtures, United had conceded the most goals of any side in the top-half of the Premier League (21), despite having played a game fewer than the majority of their rivals.
Liverpool, by contrast, have conceded just 19 despite having lost talisman Virgil van Dijk as well as regular partner Joe Gomez to long-term injuries. United have pretty much played with a first-choice central defence all season, even if Solskjaer opted for Bailly to act as Harry Maguire’s partner here, with Victor Lindelof shunted out to right-back.
How, then, do United solve what is clearly becoming the issue that is holding them back the most?
Last season they turned to Fernandes in the January window, and he has proven to be a revelation. Of the 60 league goals United have scored since his arrival, the 26-year-old has scored 18 and assisted a further 13.
There is certainly talent around him, but United’s attack does not function unless Fernandes is pulling the strings.
The January window is again just round the corner, but making a Fernandes-esque signing to solve United’s defensive issues will not be anywhere near as straightforward this time around.The Red Devils are keen to add a world-class centre-back to their squad, but doing so over the course of the next month or so looks unlikely.
United prefer to do their business in the summer window and will only move in January if a long-term target becomes available, which right now does not look probable.
“The pressure on the ball for the first wasn’t good enough, and the second one we could stop the cross, but we are a bit unlucky with deflection from Vardy,” Solskjaer explained post-match.
“When you score as many as we do you have to accept you open up a bit at times. [If] you win 3-2 you are happier than 0-0.”
That may well be the case, but United will not win 3-2 every week, even with Fernandes in the team.
“The only thing I’ve missed in this year is the trophies,” Fernandes told BT Sport prior to kick-off here. “I don’t have trophies for the club and I’m not happy about that. I hope 2021 can be better in that way.”
United certainly have the attack to contend for those trophies, but a game-changing defensive signing is likely required to make Fernandes’ dreams a reality.