Fernandes shows shades of Cantona
To call Bruno Fernandes a transformative signing on the Eric Cantona level might be premature, but he was just what Manchester United needed: the right kind of player at the right time, with infectious ability and self-belief.
There were glimpses here of a new, dynamic, exciting United side in the making and Fernandes is central to the revival. Two goals for the club’s £67million January signing offered yet more evidence that “Bruno” is one of those catalyst acquisitions who help a struggling team find purpose and rhythm, two qualities United have too often lacked. Fernandes is also a “platform” player who helps others flourish.
Of all the United youngsters who will benefit from Fernandes’s influence, Mason Greenwood is making arguably the fastest progress. Greenwood needs no warnings from his manager about new strikers maybe coming in. This superbly promising 18-year-old would take some shifting by any recruit. His first-half goal here featured quick feet, close control and rapier intent, and his pass for Fernandes’s second was perfect. His ceaseless roaming and speed of thought have added an edge to a United side who used to advance clunkily and with no clear pattern of play.
United had won only four of their 15 league away fixtures this season and had not taken all three points in the top tier at Brighton since 1982, but they were domineering from the start. With Harry Maguire free to play from the back under no pressure, Paul Pogba rapidly finding his range and United’s three young counter-attackers tormenting Brighton’s defence, United were 2-0 up within half an hour – a miskicked goal by Fernandes complementing Greenwood’s dash away from Dale Stephens in the 16th minute and sharp, cold finish.
United’s 49 points from 31 games was their lowest since 1990-91, so the heat was on them to finish this summer festival with a flourish. They sensed vulnerability in an experimental Brighton side and used the first half for passing practice.
Brighton returned with energy and renewed commitment to beat Arsenal at home and take a point off Leicester at the King Power. They sought a win that would have taken them nine points clear of the relegation zone, but found United a much tougher proposition. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, unbeaten in 15 games in all competitions, have now kept eight clean sheets in 13 league games and are two points off a guaranteed Champions League qualification place.
Solskjaer discarded most of the FA Cup team who made it through to the semi-finals at the weekend and restored the big names, led by the potential dream midfield combination of Fernandes and Pogba – as well as the three young attackers to whom the manager delivered such an unexpected warning on the eve of this match.
With only 48 goals in 31 Premier League fixtures, Solskjaer said the team might need another finisher next season. It sounded mischievous. Fourteen league goals each for Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial was respectable with seven games left, but Solskjaer is evidently keen to maintain creative tension in his squad.
The biggest test of Mac Allister’s club career was to cope with the craft and experience of Fernandes and Pogba and he found it hard going. Tariq Lamptey, who made such a striking Brighton debut at Leicester, retained his place, but this time at right midfield. Even with two right-backs Brighton struggled to deal with United’s relentless incursions and the ease with which they moved the ball.
Brighton needed to change, and at half-time Potter brought on Maupay and Leandro Trossard. United were unimpressed, striking again for Fernandes’s second, after Nemanja Matic had hooked a long ball to Greenwood, who raced up Brighton’s right flank and crossed to the team’s new unofficial leader, who cracked it past Mat Ryan, who was partly blamed for United’s second. started on the bench. Graham Potter, who said he wanted to utilise Connolly’s “pace,” also gave a second league start in midfield to Alexis Mac Allister, a 21-year-old who has played twice for Argentina.
Brighton, meanwhile, were without Adam Webster, who injured a hamstring at Leicester and took a chance up front on Aaron Connolly, 20, who had not scored since Oct 5, while the leading scorer, Neal Maupay,