The World at his Feet

The World at his Feet

Written on 05/13/2019

Bruno Fernandes' journey to super-stardom begins this summer

A midfielder par excellence.

Premier League sharks are circling for Bruno Fernandes after an extraordinary season that will have escaped the attention of very few ardent supporters of Portuguese football.

As yet another prodigiously gifted talent nears the leap from the Portuguese Liga into the realm of football’s elite, PortuGOAL.net’s Nathan Motz evaluates the factors which may influence Bruno’s success and what that might mean for the Seleção.

It was the 81st minute of a match Portugal were eager to put behind them. No sooner had he hit the ball when a look of disgust creeped across his face, and not only that, but despair. Having received a rude introduction to World Cup football in the previous match against Spain, Fernandes had only just tried, and failed, to do against Morocco what he normally did quite well for Sporting: test the keeper from range. Nothing worked for Bruno Fernandes last summer. Without his contribution, and that of several others who had shown such promise during the 2017/18 club season, Portugal bowed out quietly in the Round of 16.

It is always a mystery when elite players struggle to perform for their country. Questions about the player’s commitment and mental state begin to surface. Many forget even Cristiano Ronaldo, particularly after the 2008 European Championship, was thought to be one such player, a mercenary for his club, but disloyal and disinterested when it came to international football.

At 24, Bruno Fernandes is in a more advantageous position relative to other Portuguese exports. Unlike Bruma or Renato Sanches, his talent was sharpened over a period of several years in Italy and continued by a club well-known for its role in shaping top-performers. He could have forced a move to a lesser club outside Portugal after last season when he scored a not-insignificant 16 goals especially given the chaotic environment at Sporting. But he stayed and had the most extraordinary yet somehow underrated of seasons. Forget Frank Lampard, he outscored Cristiano Ronaldo, the first Portuguese player to do that since Ronaldo was a teenager.

But the question remains: what type of player is Bruno Fernandes? Aside from epitomizing the “light shining in the darkness” role for Sporting over the last two years, it is clear that Bruno, like any player, possesses certain abilities which will not work in every application. This is a bit concerning because the type of clubs now after Bruno Fernandes are not well-respected for appreciating the unique skillset of the players they acquire.

Manchester City, by all accounts the frontrunner, are probably only looking at metrics, not necessarily the player’s utility within their tactical scheme. They are in the business of out-possessing other clubs in terms of raw talent. This is not necessarily a criticism of them either. They have money and lots of it. Buying up players like Fernandes denies their competitors the opportunity to strengthen their own squads. But is that to Fernandes’ benefit?

I wrote before the World Cup last year that Bruno Fernandes, despite his enviable attacking qualities, is not a possession-first player. His DNA fundamentally resides within a different space on the football competency spectrum. He is undeniably artistic, and remarkably proficient at undoing troublesome defensive vanguards, but only in a certain role. I would argue he may not find Pep Guardiola’s ponderous ball-control tactics compatible with the robust and aggressive style in which he excels.

Bruno Fernandes is quintessentially Portuguese despite spending the early years of his career in Italy’s Serie A. He is direct and aggressive, looking for the immediate option rather than patiently waiting out a defense. He is keen to make a run into the penalty area instead of merely dictating play from the edge of the attacking third. A swashbuckling downhill surge of enthusiasm. The magnetic compulsion to “get forward” regularly draws him out of position and can expose a midfield to counterattack. Speaking of which, Bruno flourishes on the counter and is as willing to drift wide and deliver the killer cross as he is to be on the end of one.

But my immediate question is how he is ever going to slow his play down and participate in weaving the intricate passing tapestry demanded by Pep Guardiola? Something will have to give. Knowing Pep, I cannot imagine any other outcome but for Bruno to completely reinvent his expression of the game in order to survive in City’s outpass & outwork archetype.

This season, Bruno delivered almost twice as many long-balls as Kevin de Bruyne, probably the most direct of City's current midfielders. Bruno also has a fairly mediocre pass completion percentage for a midfielder, a point exaggerated when comparisons are drawn with City’s current midfield stock (see graphic). He’s more reckless than City’s midfielders too, losing the ball more often and obviously shooting more. In Portugal, Bruno’s electrifying goals regularly buoyed Sporting, but Premier League defenses might not be so accommodating. Against Arsenal in the Europa League this season, Bruno was fairly pedestrian, completing 73% of his passes, including four key passes, and tallying a 6.4 rating across two matches against the London-based club who will square off against Chelsea in the final.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Here is another thought: do City even need his goalscoring exploits? They have Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, and a host of others. City are not a club which rests its fate upon superhuman individual efforts like Bruno has to give for Sporting. Can he subdue his preference to go-for-goal and instead serve up Aguero and Sterling with tap-ins? If you need a midfield conductor or ball-control specialist, why buy a player who excels as a goalscorer and force him to completely alter his style? A bent nail requires a hammer, a feather duster for a window pane, never the reverse.

Manchester United are also rumored to be in the hunt for Bruno Fernandes, and I will be frank: this club is in dire circumstances. Though they definitely have space for him, and could better appreciate an incisive player like Bruno, this club has mismanaged talent after talent over the last few seasons. What evidence suggests the situation will be different for Bruno? Manchester United is a storied club, but needs to sort itself out. You could argue Bruno is exactly the type of player who could help them begin the process, but it is in the boardroom where the malady resides. Until it is corrected, players like Bruno Fernandes might need to give United a second thought.

Which brings us full-circle back to the most important quandary: can Bruno Fernandes ever realize his considerable potential for the Seleção? The World Cup was unfortunate for him, but also went poorly for Guedes, Raphael Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva, and well, almost everyone else too. Before we even consider whether Santos is capable of devising a system that facilitates Portugal’s young talents, it is obvious the players themselves have more work to do.

A huge part of that work involves finding the right club, and by extension the right role which they can transpose onto their play for the Seleção. Guerreiro got away from that and his impact for Portugal has suffered. João Mário needs a new club altogether. So do Renato Sanches, Bruma, and possibly André Silva.

For Bruno Fernandes, his upcoming transfer is about more than whether he chooses the red or blue half of Manchester. It is about how he wants to evolve as a player and what that might mean holistically in his professional career.

These are not routine business queries, they are questions about his fundamental nature as a footballer and how he can reach the pinnacle of his ability. With the world at his feet, and plenty of time left in his career to take Portugal’s midfield to new heights, eyes will remain on Bruno Fernandes as either a hero for tomorrow or simply Portugal’s latest tale of what might have been.

by Nathan Motz