When Manchester United announce their starting line-up an hour before Sunday’s clash with Aston Villa at Villa Park, there will be a very unfamiliar look to the teamsheet.
For the first time in the Erik ten Hag era, Bruno Fernandes’ name will be nowhere to be seen. The 28-year-old will miss the trip to the Midlands through suspension, after picking up his fifth booking of the season in the latter stages of last Sunday’s 1-0 win over West Ham United at Old Trafford.
Fernandes, who has been one of United’s best signings in recent years, has been virtually ever-present under Ten Hag this season, starting all but one game in all competitions. He has, however, featured in every game and has played every single minute in the Premier League this term.
READ MORE: How United will deal with Bruno Fernandes absence vs Aston Villa
Although he has not been at his fluent best this season, a statement backed up by his tally of just two goals and two assists, his absence threatens to disrupt United’s recent momentum, particularly in midfield. That area of the team has been transformed from United’s weakest point to one of their strongest in just a few months under Ten Hag.
The Dutchman, in recent weeks, has found success in a midfield trio featuring Christian Eriksen, Fernandes and Casemiro. The latter has sat at the base of it, being responsible for doing the dirty side of the game, Fernandes sat at the top of it, attempting to connect the midfield and attack, and Eriksen, who has been the orchestrator, operating in a free-roaming No.8 role, almost acting as the shuttle between Casemiro and Fernandes at either end of the midfield spectrum.
Considering Eriksen, who will have aspirations of starring at the World Cup with Denmark in the coming weeks, was added to Ten Hag’s squad during the summer with the expectation of challenging Fernandes for the attacking-midfield berth, ultimately replacing the released Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, it has been something of a surprise as to just how well he has performed in a more reserved midfield role. The former Tottenham Hotspur man, for much of his career, has been considered as an advanced, forward-thinking playmaker, playing right at the very tip of the midfield.
But considering how much of an onus Ten Hag has placed on wanting control in midfield, Eriksen’s deployment as a box-to-box-type midfield player has not, in that sense, been too surprising. He has flourished in that position this season, becoming one of the most important players in the Dutchman’s thinking.
His absence against Newcastle United three weeks ago highlighted just how influential he has become. United had next to control against the Magpies, often being overrun in midfield, and looked lost without his presence.
However, with Fernandes unavailable for the trip to Villa, the most logical solution, certainly on paper, would be to move Eriksen further up the pitch and into the attacking-midfield berth. Everyone expected that to happen when Fernandes was named on the bench for the Europa League clash with Real Sociedad at Old Trafford back in September, but Ten Hag opted to deploy Fred in a more advanced role, leaving Eriksen in the role he has become so accustomed to since arriving at Old Trafford.
It was a decision that backfired miserably. Fred, understandably, given his style, looked lost in the attacking-midfield berth, meaning that is an experiment that ought not to be repeated again. Fred does not have the ability to play that role, meaning Eriksen is the prime candidate to replace Fernandes at the tip of the midfield.
Fred, however, is the leading candidate to replace Eriksen in his role, meaning he could join forces with Casemiro slightly deeper in midfield. With Casemiro being the anchor, Fred providing energy in the No.8 role and Eriksen pulling the strings in the attacking-midfield berth, it is a midfield-three that would make logical sense.
Had Donny van de Beek impressed against Sociedad on Thursday night in Spain, he could have been a prime candidate to fill in for Fernandes. However, he looked bereft of confidence and offered very little in terms of an attacking threat.
That means that Eriksen, who is an experienced attacking midfielder, particularly in the Premier League, should be the prime candidate to pick up the baton from Fernandes. He knows the role inside out and it would give him the opportunity to show United’s fans and Ten Hag what else he has in his locker.