Bruno Fernandes has given Erik ten Hag a fresh challenge at Manchester United – George Smith

Signed from Sporting Lisbon at the very end of the 2020 January transfer window, the Portuguese international practically single-handedly dragged United to a top-four finish, securing them a place in the Champions League for the 2020/21 campaign. They were fifth in the table the day he signed, six points shy of the top four, and they managed to finish a creditable third.

In just 14 Premier League appearances, Fernandes scored eight goals and registered seven assists, making an impact that he, the club and the supporters could have only dreamt about when he put pen to paper on an initial five-and-a-half-year contract. He registered a direct goal contribution (goal or assist) in 10 of his first 14 league appearances, adapting to life in England with ease.

That, however, was a sign of things to come. Fernandes picked up where he left off in 2020/21, a season that was played behind-closed-doors because of the pandemic, and netted 28 goals and registered 17 assists in all competitions. He had become, arguably, the best attacking-midfielder in the world.

He could win games on his own, even though that, mostly, was because he was a class above everyone else playing with him. He also grabbed a respectable 10 goals and racked up 14 assists last season, too, even though Cristiano Ronaldo joined him at Old Trafford to ease the goalscoring burden on his shoulders.

This season, however, Fernandes has been a shadow of his usual self, certainly in terms of his attacking output. As we flip over our calendars and say hello to 2023, the former Lisbon star has scored just three times and registered four assists in all competitions. Considering he has played in all but one of United&aposs 24 matches this season, it is a return that he will no doubt be disappointed with.

But although his attacking output has not been as sparkling as we have come to expect over the last few seasons, it is not to say that Fernandes has been poor this season. In fact, he has been quite the opposite.

Now that he is working within a three-man midfield blessed with world-class quality and experience, secured thanks to the summer signings of Christian Eriksen and Casemiro, both of whom have been excellent since their arrivals at Old Trafford, Fernandes is able to conduct a more unassuming role, all whilst shouldering the responsibility of club captain and leading by example.

Casemiro has added a much-needed defensive presence to the midfield, something that had been needed for several years, and Eriksen has brought a controlling element and degree of undisputed class. But while those two have taken care of those matters, Fernandes remains the architect-in-chief, tasked with making things happen and creating opportunities for those at the top end of the pitch.

But the fact that Fernandes is going about his work in a more understated and less noticeable fashion is credit to United and manager Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman has moulded the Reds into a well-oiled team, fighting for each other, opposed to being over-reliant on Fernandes&apos brilliance to create something out of nothing and carry the team on his shoulders.

Although that is testament to the way Ten Hag has transformed United&aposs fortunes this season, in the sense that he has turned them into a fully cohesive team, Fernandes will be hoping to add to his attacking output in the second half of the campaign. His tally of just two goals and two assists in the league so far this term is bound to frustrate him, particularly after plundering such eye-catching numbers in recent seasons, and he will be keen to kick-on in the coming weeks and months.

United&aposs lack of a world-class striker means that the goals have not flowed as fluidly as anyone would have hoped for so far this season, meaning there is a small degree of pressure on Fernandes to start chipping in again, especially when Marcus Rashford is currently doing much of the damage on his own. The Portuguese international, with the knowledge that Casemiro and Eriksen are operating in tandem just behind him, can afford to take one or two more risks in his attempt to get back among the goals.

He has lost his golden touch in front of goal, as proven by his wayward free-kick and speculative effort, perhaps a cross, against Wolves at Molineux on Saturday. His reaction was one of frustration, screaming to the heavens above, meaning it is clearly an issue playing on his mind.

If United can find a way to get him in the goals again, the current trajectory they are on should only get steeper.

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