Bruno Fernandes must adapt to make Ronaldo partnership work
Cristiano Ronaldo has earned a reputation in recent years for having a greater gravitational pull than any player in world football. His presence is said to warp and bend any team he plays in towards its natural centre, a.k.a. Cristiano Ronaldo. This has been exacerbated by how, with age, he has refined his game down to the bare essentials based around his goal-poaching instincts.
It is a little bit of oversimplification, exaggerated by Ronaldo’s personality as much as his performances, and not always internally consistent. Is Ronaldo now a stripped-back penalty box predator or always at the centre of everything and not letting anyone else have a kick? In any case, that is the perception and it has sometimes felt like a reality for one of his compatriots, international team-mates and new colleagues at club level.
Ronaldo became the nine-year-old Bruno Fernandes’ favourite player after watching him play for Portugal at Euro 2004. “That year stays with everyone because we lost the final in Portugal, we saw him crying after the final,” he said last season. “He was a young boy who was starting to shine and from there I started to watch him.” His first European Championship playing alongside Ronaldo did not go to plan last summer, though.
As his boyhood hero racked up the five goals and one assist that won him the tournament’s Golden Boot, Fernandes struggled, lost his starting place and almost conceded a penalty that could have sent Portugal packing in the group stages. Jose Mourinho described his performances at the tournament as ‘anonymous’.
The theory is simple: Fernandes cannot shine in Ronaldo’s shadow, and the raw numbers support that hypothesis to an extent. He and Ronaldo have played together 26 times for Portugal in all. Ronaldo has scored 30 goals in those games while Fernandes has scored four. For a player who has averaged more than one every two games at club level, that is a significant drop-off.
It is not as if Fernandes has suddenly turned provider for Ronaldo and their Portugal team-mates either, managing just three assists in those games. Together, Fernandes and Ronaldo have only combined for two goals.
This September international break was the same story in microcosm. The record 110th and 111th international goals of Ronaldo’s career came after Fernandes’ 62nd-minute substitution against the Republic of Ireland. With Ronaldo then suspended and back in Manchester by the time of their following qualifier away to Azerbaijan, Fernandes pulled the strings to set up Bernardo Silva’s majestic opening goal and had a telling hand in the second.
If this is the partnership to lead United to their first Premier League title in eight years, it appears to require some work.
There are very real, tangible ways in which Ronaldo’s arrival will change Fernandes’ game. The most obvious is penalty-taking. Fernandes has never stepped up to the spot for Portugal when Ronaldo is also on the pitch.
Yesterday, the United manager would not say whether Ronaldo or Fernandes will step up to the spot if Newcastle concede a penalty today.
“I knew that question was going to come and of course I’ve had a chat with the two of them,” Solskjaer said,
“It’s going to be my decision what’ll happen. The two of them will keep on doing what they do when they’re asked to take the penalties.”
If Ronaldo is to be the designated taker going forward, some of the air will be sucked out of Fernandes’ scoring numbers. Half of his 18 league goals last season were penalties.
It would be no surprise, then, if Fernandes’ goal output diminished significantly while playing alongside Ronaldo but his influence does not have to suffer the same fate. Ronaldo may hog penalties, free-kicks and ultimately goals but he still requires service.
There is another way Fernandes’s game could change. One thing Ronaldo has never consistently been at club level is a lone striker, even after transitioning from a wide forward to a centre forward.
Solskjaer has experimented with strike partnerships as part of formation changes in the past, briefly trying a midfield diamond and a three-man defence on for size last season. Eventually, he has always reverted to his trusted 4-2-3-1 with Fernandes operating as No 10. What if that role was modified, with him operating off Ronaldo and running beyond him? Would that be one way to making Ronaldo and Fernandes a winning combination?
The proof will be out on the pitch. Ronaldo will almost certainly be a success on his goal record alone but he is something of a luxury signing that does not address United’s biggest issues, and could potentially create other problems further down the line. How Solskjaer makes all these parts fit together will be fascinating. (© Independent News Service)