MANCHESTER, England — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said ahead of Istanbul Basaksehir‘s visit to Old Trafford that Manchester United will have to find a way to cope without Bruno Fernandes at some stage this season, but the Norwegian would be forgiven for hoping he never has to find out. United are a point away from guaranteeing their place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League thanks to a 4-1 win over the reigning Turkish champions and, in no small part, their Portuguese midfielder.
At his news conference on Monday, Solskjaer accepted he will have to rest Fernandes during a breathless season with little time for rest and recuperation. Then 24 hours later, the 26-year-old showed why it will be easier said than done. Before 20 minutes were on the clock, he had rifled in the opening goal, sliced opened Istanbul Basaksehir’s defence to make a goal for Marcus Rashford that was ruled out by the tightest of offsides and then scored his second with one of those right-place-at-the-right-time tap-ins.
He has nine goals already this season, and five in his past three games. How do you give a break to a player you cannot do without?
“We see him every day in training and knew what we were going to get when we brought Bruno into the team,” said Solskjaer. “He’s a player who likes to take risks, he wants the team to win and do well and it shows today he can do more than just take penalties.”
The statistics make for eye-popping social media graphics: he has 21 goals in 35 appearances since joining from Sporting Lisbon in January and has reached 20 goals for United quicker than any other player — but his importance to this United team cannot just be measured in numbers.
After fizzing a 20-yard rocket into the roof of the net to put United ahead, Fernandes was immediately talking to Aaron Wan-Bissaka and then Victor Lindelof about their positioning. Next he was encouraging Harry Maguire after some calm defending in the far corner before turning to Edinson Cavani, who made his first start to United, to issue more instructions.
Maguire wears the armband but Fernandes is the conductor. It was notable that when United were awarded a penalty at the end of the first half, Fernandes gave up the chance to complete his hat trick and instead passed the ball to Rashford, who hadn’t scored for more than a month. Rashford found the net, ensuring United went in 3-0 up at half-time of a Champions League fixture for the first time since beating Roma 7-1 in 2007.
It’s not the first time Fernandes has put the team first. On a hat trick against Everton, he squared the ball for Cavani to score his first United goal rather than shoot himself.
“Every player wants to score a hat trick, but after the last Premier League game I told Rashy the next one you will take and so I remembered that,” Fernandes said afterwards. “And I remembered that Rashy is one of the top scorers in the Champions League so I think it will be important for him to keep going there and to take that confidence. It doesn’t matter who takes the penalties. The most important thing is scoring. The team scores so when the team scores I score, too.”
With nearly an hour gone and Istanbul Basaksehir beaten, Fernandes finally got his rest and was replaced with Mason Greenwood, but he will be the first name on the team sheet again when Solskjaer picks his XI to play Southampton on Sunday.
Paul Pogba struggles to get a game even when he’s fit, Donny van de Beek is yet to start in the Premier League, United won at Paris Saint-Germain without Maguire and Solskjaer has Dean Henderson to replace David De Gea if needed, but he would struggle to fill the void left by Fernandes.
He has featured in all but one of United’s 14 games this season and has missed just two since his £47 million move from Portugal 10 months ago. Solskjaer’s team have 10 games before the end of the year but there won’t be many opportunities to rest his most influential player. Still 10th in the Premier League table, Solskjaer does not have the luxury of picking weakened teams.
He will not have missed the fact that even 3-0 up here, United were far from comfortable without Fernandes for the final half hour as the visitors scored one and hit the bar.
“The second half is always different and difficult to keep the tempo,” argued Solskjaer, but that had much to do with Fernandes being sat in the stands. Central to United’s chances of success this season, it is difficult to see a day when he is watching a game rather than deciding it any time soon.