The genius of Fernandes
Bruno Fernandes has been so good for Manchester United that he’s now producing moments of genius by simply running away from the ball.
His first goal against Real Sociedad was a study in spatial awareness and playing with your head up. As he watched Marcus Rashord’s pass loop over his shoulder he was aware that two defenders and Sociedad goalkeeper Álex Remiro were all converging on the same bouncing ball. Fernandes checked his surroundings a couple of times and having weighed up the space available and trajectory of the ball he darted out of the firing line at the last minute and watched as three Sociedad players took each other out, while Fernandes swept the ball into an empty net.
If that finish was simple his second was superb, finding the bottom corner of the net with a fabulous finish. His numbers never cease to amaze and that’s now 33 goals in 58 games for United. Fernandes hasn’t always been at his best in recent weeks but he never goes missing and always finds a way of picking up the right positions to earn a chance or two in a game.
What this performance showed was that the Europa League is not the stage for his gifts. Fernandes is a world-class footballer who deserves to be playing in the Champions League and competing for domestic titles. United have to show they can offer that themselves within the next 18 months and while they’re at it they could put a bumper new contract in front of him as well.
There will be no prospect of losing him anytime soon, but when you sign a player of Fernandes’ quality you have to give them the environment to thrive in as well. United are on the right track with that, but they need to be playing Champions League football in February rather than Europa League.
Henderson’s latest audition
This was another good night for Dean Henderson in the United goal, although you have to wonder what he’d have to do to usurp David de Gea as the first-choice goalkeeper this season.
It was a second successive clean sheet for Henderson and a second game in which he hasn’t had an awful lot to do, although perhaps some of that can be put down to his organisational skills.
He did make one early save from Aleksander Isak, getting down low at his near post, and he was commanding in coming for a ball that looped up in the area early in the second half, punching clear decisively.
Since his blunder at Sheffield United in the Premier League in December Henderson has been pretty much faultless for United. He should start the home leg again next week, but you do feel the time is coming to get a chance in the Premier League.
The good and bad of Bailly
Eric Bailly’s head might have been spinning inside three minutes of this game. First, his lose touch almost allowed Adnan Januzaj a dream goal against his former club, before he was outmuscled by Isak and needed Henderson to bail him out.
It was a lethargic start to the game from the Ivorian, one that could perhaps be forgiven bearing in mind he hadn’t played since the win at Fulham on January 20, but also one that fits in with the profile of a defender who remains error and injury-prone.
But Bailly did improve after that shaky beginning and we saw the best of him as well. Isak is no slouch but Bailly kept pace with him when he threatened to break on goal and that recovery pace is a valuable asset for United.
It allows them to play a higher line and encourages Harry Maguire to go and engage his man, knowing Bailly is there to get United out of trouble. This wasn’t a perfect night for the centre back, but it did display his strengths.
Pace to burn
Solskjaer’s options in attack were limited given the absence of Edinson Cavani from the travelling party to Turin but the decision to select Daniel James ahead of Juan Mata and Rashford over Anthony Martial hinted at the game plan.
This was about pace for United and getting that front three of James, Rashford and Greenwood running at or, ideally, beyond the Sociedad defence.
It worked perfectly and Rashford could have had a hat-trick of goals that way at least, regularly finding himself galloping beyond the last line of defence. This was a tactical triumph for Solskjaer.
Neutral venue advantage
Playing the away leg of this last-32 tie in Turin rather than in the Basque country was certainly an advantage to United and it’s one they capitalised on fully.
Solskjaer did say last week he’d be happy to play these ties over one leg, but while the rules remain as they are United can only follow them and they took advantage of that against Sociedad.
There might have been no fans anyway had this game been played at Sociedad’s Anoeta home, but the hosts would at least have had the advantage of familiarity, home comforts and the lack of travel. Instead playing the tie in Italy was a levelling factor and it’s one United took advantage of.