Fresh news emerged in the past week from Portuguese publication A Bola that Manchester City were preparing to meet with representatives of Sporting CP to discuss a potential transfer for star central attacking midfielder, Bruno Fernandes. By now that meeting should have come and gone, and should enough smoke emanate over the next couple of weeks to indicate there may be fire behind these claims, it raises a number of intriguing questions, not the least of which would be, “how does City fit him into an already crowded midfield rotation?”
Before worrying about that question, amongst others (which I’ll address later in this piece), it is perhaps wise to first try and understand precisely what type of player Fernandes is, and how he could help the club in 2019 and beyond. In preparing this analysis I’ve relied on statistics from WhoScored.com, as well as data from TransferMarkt.com.
I’ve also scouted the player on my own watching five matches; two Europa League matches vs Villarreal in February, two Europa League matches against Arsenal in late October and early November, as well as Benfica vs Sporting from last June. I chose these five matches because they were the best available examples of Sporting matches that I could find online where I could see Fernandes matched up against higher level talent than he would normally face against lower table Liga NOS sides.
Taking the time to analyze him through this prism significantly influenced my analysis in ways that it may not have with a player from a more challenging league.
Make of that what you will, and feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Twenty four year-old Bruno Miguel Borges Fernandes has established himself as a star player in Portugal’s Liga NOS, but before doing so he cut his teeth in Italy, making his first team professional debut at nineteen years old for Udinese against Inter Milan as a substitute, scoring his first goal just shy of a month later. He’d eventually move on to Sampadoria, and in total he’d go on to tally 15 goals and 14 assists in Serie A.
Returning to Portugal with Sporting at just twenty two years old, he’d catch fire, and there he’s been burning down the walls of Liga NOS ever since, posting a staggering 27 goals and 22 assists, with a further 7 goals and 7 assists over two seasons in the Champions and Europa Leagues.
Standing 179cm (5’10”), Fernandes never truly stood out to me in any of the matches I watched for his pure athletic gifts. He is neither fast, nor quick, nor does he possess cat-like agility. None of which is to suggest that he is a poor athlete, merely that he’s adequate for the demands.
As we’ve seen repeatedly, while being a phenomenal athlete is never a bad thing, it’s also not a true need in central midfield. City stars such as David Silva, Bernardo, and Kevin de Bruyne patrol the midfield with aplomb, all without ever being overly physically imposing in any notable way. Some are a little stronger (de Bruyne), some are more nimble (Silva) and others are quicker (Bernardo), but they succeed anyways, and while Fernandes stands out in no particular category, he’s passable across the board, and wouldn’t fail the grade in the Premier League on athleticism alone.
One area that’s a pretty significant red flag for me is his strength both on, and off the ball. While he does a decent enough job shielding the ball from would-be challengers, he needs to keep the ball moving, because he simply isn’t strong enough to hold them off on sheer physicality alone. Defensively, he is either unwilling or incapable of going shoulder-to-shoulder with many opponents, and this limits his impact as he has to rely on his subpar tackling skills to dispossess the opposition.
He is, at best, limited in the air, winning less than one aerial challenge per match, and shouldn’t be expected to win aerial duels with anyone he isn’t bigger than. Even then, he’s only an even money prospect to come out ahead. His lack of either strength or aerial abilities means he will be of little support in defending set pieces.
A player full of deft turns, feather soft layoffs, and owner of a sometimes thunderous right footed strike, Fernandes rarely puts a boot wrong, and his technique should be counted as a strong plus in his game. He’s two-footed and loves to take the pass on the inside of either foot, swivel his hips, and turn past bracketing defenders before driving into space, committing the defense, and picking the right pass. It’s a move he’s perfected, and terrorizes opposing sides with time and again.
The one aspect of his game that he is truly known for of course, is his free kick ability, and for exceptionally good reason. Fernandes possesses an ability to threaten the goal, consistently, from up to forty yards out. His free kicks are hit with pace, swerve, and unbelievable precision. That ability to strike from distance translates to his open play game as well, and opposing defenses leave him unmarked up to thirty yards from goal at their own peril as he is a true threat to ripple the back of the net from the moment he enters the final third.
Fernandes uses his solid, if unspectacular dribbling abilities (0.9 successful dribbles per match in Liga NOS and the Europa League this season) less in face-up, take-your-man situations, and more in tight spaces when he needs to find a clever turn, or to create enough space, or the right angle, to get his pass away. In many ways his use of dribbling is similar to that of David Silva. Both seem to understand that direct running isn’t something that’s well suited to their slower pace, and instead they use if to enhance their creative distribution skills.
He possesses and displays the full range of passing. When he drops deep to help bring the ball out of defense, he’s comfortable playing with his back to the defense and either playing it backwards, or sideways on the first touch. He always seems to know where his options are and rarely dallies on the ball which means he’s rarely pressed off it, and almost always ensures that whomever is receiving his pass has enough time and space to control it, and move it along. When afforded the space to turn and face the oppositions goal from deep, he’s more likely to play the ball forward via the pass than he is to try and run through midfield, and from here he’ll show the full range, switching play from right to left, or splaying a ball down the right wing to be run onto.
In midfield he’ll maintain possession until the moment arrives, before finding the decisive pass that springs a winger or marauding fullback loose. He’s deadly on the counter, whether from a standstill or on the run, and while he lacks the precision of de Bruyne, and doesn’t seem to have the ability to see the truly impossible passes that our Ginger Prince does, completing only .25 through balls per match, he’s a very dangerous playmaker from deep. The closer he moves to the opponents area, the more comfortable he seems to try and play the ball through the middle, and the more likely he is to try and spring one of his deadly one-two runs (read more about that below).
As he moves into the attacking third he truly comes into his own. Centrally he’ll look to spring his forwards as they make runs to beat the trap. When he drifts out wide on the right he likes to deliver whipped crosses (completing 1.6/match) between the defense and the goal keeper for on-rushing attackers to head, or toe-poke home. He doesn’t have quite the power on these crosses that, say, de Bruyne does, but they’re precise and deadly, with bend and power. On the left, he’s more likely to drive the byline before using his weaker foot to deliver low crosses in front of the face of goal, a la Leroy Sané, for his forwards to tap home, and he’s surprisingly adept at this given that he’s asked to take the pass on his weaker foot and in stride.
As his team’s main creator, Fernandes is asked to take a lot of chances, and as a result his pass completion percentage (74.7%) isn’t as strong as you’d ideally like to see, with City’s main midfield creators checking in at around 85%, though I have little concern that those numbers would improve considerably in Guardiola’s more patient, possession oriented system. Overall he’s delivered a startling 2.7 key passes per match this season, and Sporting will gladly sacrifice some possession for the kind of play making that he offers his side.
What Fernandes lacks in dribbling abilities, he makes up for with a high-level adeptness at finding space. Whether it’s in the channels, dropping deep to link up play, and even timing runs to get on the end of through balls of his own, Fernandes displays a consistently excellent feel for where the space is, or where it will open up. He likes to play one-twos with his strike partner, laying it off, before charging into the space the center back vacates as he closes down on the striker, with a significant number of his chances and goals coming on precisely this move.
He won’t get away with this particular move nearly as much in the Premier League, where defenders are far more adept, and far less gullible, but it speaks to his awareness and it should still be a useful tool, especially on the counter, when he can catch a confused defense scrambling to organize itself.
For a midfielder, even an attacking one, Fernandes displays a really innate sense of the finish. He’s best in space, as most players are, but unlike many, he rarely dribbles himself out of the opportunity, and when the space presents itself he’ll take the shot on the first touch, and if not, the second, rifling hard, low shots into the corner, and though he may take an extra touch to ready himself, he’s also capable of striking well with his left.
He doesn’t display the full range of finishing abilities that you may see from a more cultured striker, but on a side like City he wouldn’t necessarily require them. His ability to stretch defenses vertically would add a completely different dynamic to City’s attack, and force opposing defenses to pick their proverbial poison: leave Fernandes even a sliver of space, and he’s liable to bend a missile into the corner from thirty yards, close out on him too hard and he’ll find the right pass, and you’ll have one or two fewer defenders in the area to deal with City’s legion of poachers.
In this way, the very threat of Fernandes shooting stretches and manipulates defenses in much the same way that, say, Steph Curry’s deep shooting manipulates the floor in a basketball game, opening up the inside for others. He doesn’t have to score, or even assist the play to impact it.
While my colleague, the estimable Cian G. Walsh, notes in his lovely analysis that he finds Fernandes to be a similar type of irrepressible running, pressing machine that his countryman Bernardo is, I don’t quite see it the same way. It’s not that he can’t or won’t, but in the matches I watched he doesn’t bring anywhere near the same level of tenacity to his defending, to say nothing of the willingness to cover massive ground. It’s not that he’s lazy – he’s decidedly not – it’s just that few players on Earth can match the level of intensity that Bernardo brings to the pitch every single match, and it’s no insult to Fernandes to say that he’s not at that level.
His approach to the press is more ambush predator than relentless wolf, as he’ll often amble about the middle of the pitch until a ball is played into his area of the field, and then quickly pounce on his man, forcing a hurried pass. This is likely as much to do with Sporting’s system as anything else however, and I could count no fewer than six times I saw him run a free player down from behind before harrying him off the ball, or toe-poking it away from behind to dispossess the man.
While I’m partial to analytics and the value of data, this is one time where the data isn’t supported by the eye test. Despite registering an impressive 1.95 tackles per match between Liga NOS and the Europa League, he’s not a clean standup tackler, and unless he improves on this aspect of his game, he won’t be winning many battles in midfield. You could call him scrappy, but that doesn’t seem fair to someone like Bernardo, who is actually scrappy, nor does he have the body to bully players off the ball, but unlike other talented central attacking midfielders – I’m looking at you, Mesut Özil – he’s a willing worker who’ll put in a shift, harry the ball, diligently shadow mark a key man, and do what he can in midfield to turn over possession when given the opportunity.
When he can affect the game, it’s typically through his ability to read the game, as he’s often a move ahead of his opponents, and he uses this awareness to pounce on passes, intercepting them and returning play to his own side. Still, this has resulted in a pretty meagre 0.5 interceptions per match. Hardly an impressive return.
Why He’ll Never Wear City Blue
Because as it stands there is perhaps no place on the planet with greater strength in both depth and quality in midfield than the Blue side of Manchester. Currently the club can boast of at least four players who’d be worthy of minutes on any side in Europe in Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, and Phil Foden – to say nothing of Benardo, who’s best position may not be on the wing, but in central midfield. Certainly I’m of that opinion. Even if/when David Silva retires/leaves there’s hardly a pressing need in midfield.
For City to make such an investment in Fernandes, one that could easily eclipse £70m, they’d have to be convinced not only of his quality, but also their need. That would likely mean that they’d need to be certain that at least one, if not two of their current midfielders was headed for the exits. At the current moment there’s no certainty that’s anywhere near the case, and even if it were, would Fernandes want to sign on with a club who’s best pitch would likely be to be part of a rotation?
It’s all so very far from certain.
Why He’ll Be A City Star
Because City are an extremely attractive destination for all of the worlds top talent for so long as Pep Guardiola is the man on the touchline, and because it’s not impossible that Gündogan could leave and David could ask to return to Spain (or if recent reports are to be believed, Japan) this summer. If a spot should open up on the roster, it’s hard to imagine that Guardiola wouldn’t at least have his head turned by Sporting’s midfield orchestrator.
It’s worth noting that while his Portuguese output has been staggering – he averages a .81 goal involvements per 90 minutes (64 in 7,086), that number declines rather precipitously in Europe to .65 goal involvements per ninety minutes (13 in 1,809). Still good, but not quite as world-beating as his numbers during Portugese matches would suggest, and still not against truly top-flight opposition.
This all worth noting because while he has been fantastic in Portugal, and this report is often glowing, not all things are as they appear. Under pressure Fernandes’ game drops. That’s hardly surprising as all players not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo generally struggle more as the strength of the oppositions ratchets up, but it’s important to note because much of the great work that Fernandes has done has come when he’s been afforded the time and space to create for himself or others against competition that, quite simply put, often doesn’t offer a particularly stern challenge.
As noted earlier, he’s not big, and he doesn’t play big. He can be bodied off the ball and I’ve little doubt that it’ll take some time for him to adapt to the physicality of some of the midfields in the Premier League. He’s rarely had to face off against strong, athletic midfielders like Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Moussa Sissoko, Dele Alli, Declan Rice, or even less heralded players like Wilfried Ndidi or Granit Xhaka, to say nothing of someone like N’Golo Kanté or Paul Pogba.
I’m not trying to suggest that he would fail in the Premier League, but it’s hardly a sure thing. He’d have to adapt to a very different system to the one he played in at Sporting, while fighting for playing time, and adjusting to a league where every match can provide a significant challenge.
The raw talent is there, but whether that talent can translate or not remains a very open question.
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