ohOn days like these, as the calendar scrolls, as we bind our hands and sing our joy at being a step further on the doomsday clock, it is customary to speak of hopes for the future and of the future. life lessons from the last 12 months of kicking balls, racing the tracks, driving fast cars and everything in between.
Except of course, there aren’t any real lessons to be learned from professional sport, which essentially consists of light shapes moving across a screen, a digital celebrity cult, a confusion of desires co-opted into a fashionable entertainment product. card.
Maybe if we dig a little deeper and embrace a scintillating, world-weary frown, we could say that the only lesson to be learned from sports is that there are no lessons, only what matters. really, it’s, you know, the friends we made with the path, the spectacle, the harmless distraction.
Which is good, but that doesn’t explain why no one really thinks that, and why we’re all still so violently addicted to it, sprawled out on our backs like dying woodlice, our mouths stuffed with hot opinions over 24 hours, big acton match broadcast live inside your eyelids. Or why so much energy is spent choosing shapes and stories out of this confusion, anointing the heroes and blasting the bad guys, like barking dogs in the sky.
This is all a flowery and roundabout way of (1) avoiding another folklore review of the year; and (2) address the bizarre fate of Bruno Fernandes, whose checkered year ended with a particularly strange week.
Welcome to Bruno’s ballad. He is a footballer who spent the first half of 2021 as a candidate for the Ballon d’Or, team leader and exemplary of locker room standards. Last January Manchester United led the league and Fernandes was the best player in the country, tapping his own streak of goals and assists, “demanding more” from those around him and creating a sense of life and a goal in the Solskjær bubble.
Fast forward to Thursday night and Fernandes missed out on the win over Burnley after being booked (for whining) against Newcastle. In the meantime, a sort of wave of opinion has set in, a digital wave of revisionism. With a whiplash sense of urgency, Fernandes was singled out as something else: a purse, a penalty fraud and a general tactical misfit, perhaps even a locker room toxin, to be rooted out by the hand. intrepid of Ralf.
This is of course a familiar process with the current United, a sporting institution so laden with ghosts and ghouls, so afraid of its own shadow that it has become a real murder on the Orient Express, a place where ultimately everything everyone is guilty, everyone did it, and everyone has to pay. Fernandes will survive this. He remains United’s most effective attacking player. But it is all a bit wild, and needlessly destructive.
Gary Neville started the backpack trick at his punditry post during the Newcastle game. Neville is still brilliantly watchable and clearly has his own inner runway. But it’s also a funny line from a former player whose highly successful career was essentially fueled by high-quality Whinge-Baggery, who spent 15 years propelling himself onto the pitch with a bladder full of Whinge cradled under. each arm, the buzzing, howling and whistling soundtrack of the glories of the Fergie United era.
Until a recent period of poor form, Fernandes’ Whinge-Baggery was considered an asset. Here is a man who will not accept mediocrity, who works like a devil and demands the best. So what has changed?
The most obvious problem is tactical. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the plan was simple. Basically give it to Bruno. His job was to float between the lines with three runners moving in front of him, perform high-risk instant forward passes or shoot himself. Bruno was the end point of every attack, his job being simply to deliver the final hammer blow.
Three things interrupted him. First, the Solskjær team disbanded, driven in part by a doomed urge to break out of this slightly linear style. Second, Cristiano Ronaldo has arrived, which changes everything, not just tactically, but culturally. An ambitious creative Portuguese footballer will always say playing with Ronaldo is a dream. In fact, and at this late stage, it’s a nightmare. This presence is too heavy, the gravity too strong. There’s only room for a tactical mogul in the sun in a Ronaldo squad. And he won’t be called Bruno.
The third thing is the distinctive shot of Ralf Rangnick, whose 4-2-2-2 (or 4-4-2 Thursday night) system sees Fernandes pushed to the left of the attacking “box”, a different role that will require some grooves. He can do this job. Even Bad Bruno has scored a bunch of goals and assists in the Champions League and had 44 open play chances, more than anyone in the Premier League.
The problem is always the more generalized flow around it. Manchester United are particularly grueling in this regard, a really weird list of disconnected items – Ronaldo, Harry Maguire, a bee swarm, Donny Van De Beek, cursed romance, three slices of cheese – that will always get inconsistent at times. And because football is a TV show, and TV shows need villains, it was always likely that the big finger of blame would fall on the sometimes frustrating attacking player who isn’t named Cristiano.
Even the small details matter. Fernandes looks like a nag. His “body language” (really? Is that a thing now?) Can be terribly hilarious. He seems like the kind of person who gets really angry in a queue and cries when it’s his turn to be served. He looks like a comically frustrated high-end pastry chef. He looks like a touching cartoon kangaroo lost in the big city who just wants a friend.
He also deserves a little more respect. The skinny kid who came in from the outside, who comes back from every game and watches it whole again, noting his own stats (which are, let’s face it, exactly what you or I would do) is also the best signing since Ferguson has left the club. Those Peak Bruno times were among the few moments of clarity, the closest United turned to a more evolved, divorced entity from the past, the Ghost Train, the Haunted House.
Plus, a year-end folk thought: Fernandes was also good in dark times, when crowds weren’t there, when things could have just turned into entropy, and when his hunger and backpack really seemed. fill these lighted spaces. I’ve been to a few of these games and have always been grateful to Bruno, who may have his own jagged edges, but is clearly part of the solution.