On days like these, as the calendar ticks around, as we link hands and sing of our joy at being one notch further on the doomsday clock, it is customary to talk about hopes for the future and life lessons learned from the last 12 months of kicking balls, running around tracks, driving fast cars and all the rest.
Except of course, there are no actual lessons to be learned from professional sport, which is basically lighted shapes moving on a screen, digital celebrity worship, a confusion of desires coopted into a pay-per-view entertainment product.
Perhaps at if we dig a little deeper and adopt a twinkly, world-weary frown, we might say the only lesson to be drawn from sport is that there are no lessons, that what really matters is, you know, the friends we made along the way, the show, the harmless distraction.
Which is fine, but it doesn’t explain why nobody really thinks that, and why we are all still so violently addicted to this, splayed on our backs like dying woodlice, maws crammed with 24-hour rolling hot opinion-substance, big match acton live-streamed to the inside of your eyelids. Or why so much energy is expended on picking shapes and stories out of that confusion, anointing heroes and castigating villains, like dogs barking at the skies.
All of which is a flowery and circuitous way of (1) avoiding another folksy review of the year; and (2) getting on to the strange fate of Bruno Fernandes, whose up and down year has been capped by a particularly strange week.
The Peak Bruno times were among United’s few modern moments of clarity
Welcome to the ballad of Bruno. This is a footballer who spent the first half of 2021 as a Ballon d’Or candidate, team leader and exemplar of dressing-room standards. Last January Manchester United were top of the league and Fernandes was the best player in the country, mining his own rich seam of goals and assists, “demanding more” from those around him and creating a sense of life and purpose in the Solskjær bubble.
Fast forward to Thursday night and Fernandes missed the win against Burnley having been booked (for whinging) against Newcastle. In the meantime a kind of opinion-creep has wheedled its way in, a digital wave of revisionism. With a whiplash sense of urgency, Fernandes has been fingered as something else: a whinge-bag, penalty fraud and general tactical misfit, perhaps even a dressing-room toxin, to be rooted out by the fearless hand of Ralf.
This is of course a familiar process with the current United, a sporting institution so fraught with ghosts and ghouls, so frightened by its own shadow it has become a real time Murder On the Orient Express, a place where in the end everyone is guilty, everyone did it, and everyone must pay. Fernandes will survive this. He remains United’s most effective attacking player. But it is all a little wild, and pointlessly destructive.
Gary Neville started the whinge-bag thing in his punditry spot during the Newcastle game. Neville is always brilliantly watchable, and clearly has his own inside track. But it is also a funny line coming from an ex-player whose own very successful career was basically powered by high-grade whinge-baggery, who spent 15 years propelling himself around the pitch with a full bladder of whinge cradled beneath each arm, the droning, screeching, whinge-piping soundtrack to the glories of Fergie-era United.
Until a recent run of poor form the whinge-baggery of Fernandes was seen as an asset. Here is a man who will not accept mediocrity, who works like a demon and demands the best. So what changed?
The most obvious problem is tactical. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær the plan was simple. Basically, give it to Bruno. His job was to float in between the lines with three mobile runners ahead of him, to provide instant, high-risk forward passes or shoot himself. Bruno was the end point of every attack, his job simply to provide the final click of the hammer.
Three things have interrupted this. First, Solskjær’s team dissolved, driven in part by a doomed urge to move on from this slightly linear style. Secondly Cristiano Ronaldo arrived, which changes everything, not just tactically, but culturally. An ambitious creative Portuguese footballer will always say playing with Ronaldo is a dream. In reality, and at this late stage, it’s a nightmare. That presence is too heavy, the gravity too strong. There is only room for one basking tactical nabob in a Ronaldo team. And he’s not going to be called Bruno.
The third thing is the distinct blueprint of Ralf Rangnick, whose 4-2-2-2 system (or 4-4-2 on Thursday night) sees Fernandes pushed to the left of the attacking “box”, a different role that will require some grooving. He can make this work. Even Bad Bruno has burped up a load of goals and assists in the Champions League and made 44 chances from open play, more than anyone else in the Premier League.
The problem as ever is the more generalised flux around him. Manchester United are particularly gruelling in this respect, a genuinely weird list of disconnected objects – Ronaldo, Harry Maguire, a swarm of bees, Donny Van De Beek, doomed romanticism, three slices of cheese – that will always become incoherent at times. And because football is a TV show, and TV shows need villains, it was always likely the great finger of blame would hover over the occasionally frustrating attacking player who isn’t called Cristiano.
Even the small details count. Fernandes looks like a nag. His “body language” (really? This is a thing now?) can be hilariously terrible. He looks like the kind of person gets who really angry in a queue and cries when it’s his turn to be served. He looks like a comically frustrated high-end pastry chef. He looks like a touching cartoon kangaroo lost in the big city who just wants a friend.
He also deserves a little more respect. The skinny kid who came in from the outside, who comes home from every game and watches it again in full, noting his own stats (which is, let’s face it, exactly what you or I would do) is also the best signing since Ferguson left the club. Those Peak Bruno times have been among the few moments of clarity, the closest United have looked to a more evolved entity, divorced from the past, the ghost train, the haunted house.
Plus, one folksy end-of-year reflection: Fernandes was good in the dark times too, when crowds were absent, when things could have simply wound down into entropy, and when his hunger and his whinge-baggery really did seem to fill those lighted spaces. I went to a few of those games, and was always grateful for a bit of Bruno, who may have his own brittle edges, but who is quite clearly a part of the solution.