London (AFP) – Manchester United may have surrendered top spot in the Premier League with a shock home defeat to bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United, but the fact the Red Devils are even involved in a title race is testament to Bruno Fernandes’s first 12 months at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men travel to Arsenal on Saturday a year to the day since the Portuguese midfielder joined a side languishing 30 points off the top in fifth place.
Solskjaer’s days in charge looked numbered after a toxic response from the home support to a 2-0 defeat to Burnley in United’s final league game before Fernandes’s arrival.
In 52 appearances, the 26-year-old has scored 28 goals and provided 18 assists, earning comparisons to Eric Cantona’s talismanic turnaround in United’s fortunes.
Over the past year, no team has taken more Premier League points than United.
However, Fernandes’s impact goes beyond the stats.
For a side badly in need of a leader, the former Sporting Lisbon captain has come to the fore, demanding that others match his standards.
“I don’t do anything like saying ‘I want to be a leader or I want to do things in a different way to someone’, it’s the natural way I have. It’s something that’s in my game,” said Fernandes.
“For me the point is helping everyone with my voice when I can and also with my energy and everything I do in the game to help the team.”
That has led to on-pitch rebukes of his teammates and frustration at Solskjaer whenever he is substituted or rested.
But it is also a commitment to excellence has often been missing from United in the eight years since legendary former manager Alex Ferguson retired.
“He’s never happy with me when I tell him to go inside after training when he’s playing the next day so he got some practice yesterday,” said Solskjaer after Fernandes came off the bench to score the winner with a stunning free-kick against Liverpool in the FA Cup last weekend.
“When you leave him out like I did today, he stayed about 45 minutes after training yesterday shooting free-kicks so I was pretty confident he could score one if he got the chance.”
The most successful club in English football history when it comes to league titles have not even competed for one since Ferguson’s departure.
“My mentality, my way to be in my life and football is about winning,” said Fernandes this week.
“I don’t conform with losing games is normal stuff. For me, losing is not normal so my mentality comes from that.”
United had not suffered defeat in the league for 13 games stretching back to November until they were blunted by the Blades in midweek.
Manchester City have moved into the pole position at the top of the table with an ominous run for the other challengers of 11 consecutive wins in all competitions.
If United are to remain in the race, a return to winning ways is needed at the Emirates on Saturday, where they have lost on their two previous visits under Solskjaer.
Those defeats came prior to Fernandes’s arrival. In the past year, United have undoubtedly progressed, but without trophies to show for it.
Solskjaer’s men have lost four cup semi-finals in the past two seasons and crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages in December.
“I come to the club because I knew I will come to a club who wants to win everything,” Fernandes said on the attraction United still holds for top players.
A four-year drought without any silverware is too long for a club of United’s size, but it is thanks to Fernandes they are at least now contenders.
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