Fernandes’ bruising CB header was when we knew Man Utd had changed
It was a night that the clang of change rang loud among the creaking girders and rafters that hold up Old Trafford.
A historic rivalry, yes. Liverpool had come to play Manchester United. The same old protests against the Glazers, too, though not as widespread as some fans would have hoped.
But there was something intriguingly page-turning about the whole affair from the start. Casemiro paraded on the pitch before kick-off. Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire, Fred and Luke Shaw out of the line-up; Raphael Varane, Scott McTominay, Anthony Elanga and Tyrell Malacia in.
Then the opening 20 minutes. A whirlwind of Manchester United pressure and bodies and fizzing runs and energetic spark. Erik ten Hag’s plan finally being put into action, a world away from what we had seen against Brighton and Brentford.
An unfamiliar result in the end. A 2-1 win for United against Liverpool, victory for the first time since Jose Mourinho was doing his Doctor Doom impression on the Old Trafford touchline, when Liverpool still hadn’t won a Premier League title, or indeed anything at all since the 2012 League Cup.
A new boy won the Man of the Match gong – Lisandro Martinez doing a fair bit to silence the chorus of critics who’d been serenading him with scorn for a fortnight.
But perhaps the most impressive thing amid the melee on the green grass was the new energy injected into the red-shirted players who had looked spent for so much of the last 12 months. Marcus Rashford and McTominay, Diogo Dalot and Jadon Sancho. Most significantly, Bruno Fernandes.
He was the captain for the night, with Maguire on the bench, and he carried the burden like the sturdiest of pack horses, playing and creating, but battling and scrapping, perhaps like never before.
There were plenty of illustrations of the Portuguese’s newfound zeal. He flew into fifty-fifty challenges, he shithoused a few precious seconds for his team-mates to regain their composure just after Mohamed Salah had pulled one back.
But he saved the most resounding mettlesome moment until the last. As Liverpool searched for a leveller, there was Fernandes all the way back between his centre-halves leaping eight feet in the air to head the ball away.
It wasn’t the most beautiful thing he’s ever done on a football pitch, far from it. He’s not the most elegant jumper. But it was something different, a subtle act of defensive solidarity that spoke to the ethic Erik ten Hag is trying to instil.
Here was Bruno Fernandes looking every bit the all-round, high-energy central midfielder, tracking his runner not only into United’s half but all the way back to the penalty area and leaping to clear the ball with the relish of a clogging 1990s defensive bruiser.
There were times last season when this Fernandes seemed unthinkable.
He was the quintessential dilettante No.10. He would throw up his arms and sulk, as if he not only wanted his holding midfielders to do the dirty work behind him but to fan him and feed him lightly-chilled grapes as he sprayed searching balls for wingers to chase in vain.
He had looked part of the problem, not the solution.
According to a source quoted in The Sun, Ten Hag “tore strips off Bruno in particular” following the Brentford defeat. If true, then it had worked. But not in isolation. As well as the stick there was the carrot of the captain’s armband.
After the game, Ten Hag told Sky Sports: “I think [Fernandes] took the responsibility and I think he showed leadership with Rapha Varane on the pitch.
“They make a huge difference but that is what we have to bring but not just them two, we need more leaders. When you want a winning team, you want more leaders and you need spirit what we showed today.”
It is a spirit that needs to be bottled and kept. It’s only one game, still early days, the first step on a long journey and all that.
But the tone has been set – 114km run, 51 more sprints than Liverpool in the game – and it was Fernandes setting it from first to last. It was little wonder Jurgen Klopp wanted to throttle him at full-time…
Jurgen Klopp can't hide his feelings towards Bruno Fernandes 😅 pic.twitter.com/7Gdop1IeUM
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) August 22, 2022