Bruno Fernandes’ quality has never been in doubt, but he hasn’t always given the impression of being a natural leader. At Anfield last season, for example, the Portuguese midfielder was criticised for what many considered petulance as Manchester United suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat at the hands of Liverpool.
Only a few months on, Fernandes has been named United’s new captain following Erik Ten Hag’s decision to strip Harry Maguire of the armband. This might seem a peculiar choice to some, but there’s good reason to believe captaincy will bring the best out of the 28-year-old, both as a player and a personality.
Fernandes is certainly a strong personality. He never stops vocalising and gesturing on the pitch, pestering referees as frequently as he can. Fernandes is also known for demanding the highest standards from his teammates and the Portuguese isn’t afraid to communicate this to them during matches.
At its most destructive the internet Fernandes plays with engulfs him. It can cloud his decision-making and even affect his body language – this is what happened in the second half of the aforementioned 7-0 loss to Liverpool. Fernandes, however, always acts to improve Manchester United as a team. It’s not about his ego even if teammates get rubbed up the wrong way.
The added responsibility of being captain should settle Fernandes down as a character. Teammates will now look to the 28-year-old in times of trouble to guide them through. Fernandes’ role within the squad has now changed and Ten Hag won’t tolerate behaviour like he witnessed at Anfield now that the Portuguese has the armband.
“The manager liked my discipline and passion and everything I give,” he said. “The manager chose me because of what I was doing last season and the way he worked with me. I don’t see why I should change. You have to be as natural as you can. Sometimes I can be wrong and it is not in the best way, but there are big players in the dressing room. Everything I say to them is because I think they can do big things.”
Ten Hag might have looked at how Mikel Arteta’s decision to hand Martin Odegaard the Arsenal captaincy brought the best out of the Norwegian last season before handing Fernandes the United armband. Not widely seen as a natural leader beforehand, Odegaard was emboldened by the responsibility and reached a new level in his performances.
At Arsenal, Odegaard is harnessed by a group of other leaders around him and Fernandes will have something similar at Old Trafford. Casemiro, for instance, is experienced at the top level and will offer younger teammates advice. Raphael Varane will do the same while Marcus Rashford is steeped in the history and tradition of Manchester United having come through the club as a youngster.
Since his arrival at Old Trafford last summer, Ten Hag has focused on adding strong characters to the group he inherited. Casemiro was one of them, signed from Real Madrid. Lisandro Martinez was another with the Argentinean bringing fighting spirit to Manchester United. Fernandes, though, was one player already at the club when Ten Hag arrived and the former Ajax boss clearly sees him as a positive influence.
It won’t solely be on Fernandes to guide United through the 2023/24 season, but that Ten Hag has looked to the Portuguese international as the club’s new captain says a lot about his standing in the eyes of the Dutch manager. Ten Hag might be using the captain’s armband to get even more out of one of his best players.