Manuel Fernandes’ name is up in lights once again.
The former Benfica, Everton, Portsmouth, Valencia and Besiktas man is producing the calibre of performances that had fans on the edge of their seats over a decade ago. Now plying his trade with Russian Premier League leaders Lokomotiv Moscow, the midfield maestro stands a great chance of earning a spot on the plane to Russia this summer with Portugal.
PortuGOAL looks at the fantastic form of the supremely talented playmaker and examines how he may fit into Fernando Santos’ plans for World Cup 2018.
In the last few decades, Portugal has produced a host of players that have lit up the football world thanks to their natural flair. However, despite boasting sublime, effortless technique, trickery and flair, several of these gems have often been accused of failing to live up to their potential at best, or complete flops at worst, owing to chronic inconsistency and/or poor decision making on and off the pitch.
The likes of Ricardo Quaresma, Luís Nani and Manuel Fernandes are all guilty of possessing otherworldly talent while demonstrating maddening inconsistency and at times having less than favourable attitudes on and off the pitch, prompting them to move from club to club over the years.
Nani and Quaresma’s international careers were revitalized in wondrous fashion after Fernando Santos took over the reins of the Seleção. Both played key roles in Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph, and the latter, at 34 years of age, is playing some of the finest football of his career for club and country. In contrast, Manuel Fernandes’ talents and whereabouts were all but forgotten by many Portuguese fans.
But fast forward to 2017/2018 and Fernandes has been producing a quality of play that is impossible to ignore. A star for his club side, he has hit two hat-tricks in the Europa League this season and impressed when playing for Portugal in November’s friendly internationals against Saudi Arabia and USA.
Fernandes’ forte is undoubtedly his creativity coupled with his goal-scoring prowess. Indeed, at 32, he perhaps lacks the athleticism he once possessed – an issue I will later discuss in the role he can play for the Seleção in centre-midfield. However, what he lacks in athleticism, he certainly makes up for with his ability to create something out of nothing. This ability to create can best be seen in his most recent outing for the Russian outfit – where he scored a hat-trick to turn around a 2-0 deficit in the Europa League (as seen below).
Calm and composed in possession, Fernandes is rarely dispossessed by the opposition. His passing accuracy this season is 83%, while he averages 2.5 shots per game, exemplifying his willingness to pull the trigger at any given opportunity. He is often rewarded for his efforts, too. The Lokomotiv midfielder has 12 goals and 4 assists in 28 appearances for the Russian league leaders this season.
Despite not being the quickest off the blocks, the midfielder has averaged two dribbles per game thus far in the 17/18 campaign. Such statistics illustrate what kind of an impact Manuel Fernandes can have on a game. He is composed, skilful, possesses sublime vision and is more than capable of scoring, making him an invaluable asset to any team fortunate enough to have him in their ranks.
What role can Fernandes play for Portugal this summer?
Since taking charge of the reigning European Champions, Fernando Santos has implemented a 4-4-2 diamond formation where one central midfielder shields the back four (William Carvalho/Danilo Pereira) and the other sits just in front, often nullifying the oppositions creativity in the middle. The best suited central midfielder Portugal have in their ranks to execute this role is undoubtedly Adrien Silva.
The Leicester City man epitomises the work-horse mentality, covering every blade of grass whilst ensuring the opposition’s midfield receives next to no time on the ball. However, given Adrien Silva’s transfer debacle with Leicester it is unclear whether or not he will be in tip-top shape ahead of the World Cup.
So, where can Manuel Fernandes’ talents be best utilized for Portugal? It’s clear that the Lokomotiv star does not boast the same work-ethic as Adrien Silva or João Moutinho. Despite oozing with creativity, this central midfield role in Santos’ favoured 4-4-2 demands a great deal physically and that certainly is not Fernandes’ forte on a football pitch.
Having said that, Manuel Fernandes’ best performances of late for Lokomotiv Moscow have come from the left-hand-side in a wide playmaker role. Executing such a role allows the Benfica academy graduate to essentially have unlimited freedom, whereby his teammates operating centrally in the midfield will mirror the kind of work that Adrien Silva or João Moutinho would do ahead of either William Carvalho or Danilo Pereira. As seen in the image below in Lokomotiv’s 3-2 triumph over Nice, Fernandes played in the aforementioned wide playmaker role and thrived, scoring three goals in addition to having the most touches on the pitch (122) and contributing three key passes.
It is clear that Fernandes is at his best when operating in a free role where he has licence to roam in search of the ball. This inevitably begs the question: if he does make it to Russia this summer, what role is he best suited to? I myself had difficulties deciphering this conundrum and contemplated various scenarios. I came to the conclusion that he could play the same role that he executes so wonderfully for his club while Portugal maintain their newly formed 4-4-2.
Given that Portugal’s wide playmakers operate in a similar fashion to how Fernandes plays for Lokomotiv Moscow, I believe the 32-year-old could be a great option for the Seleção this summer – should he continue to perform consistently. Of course, he fails to possess the same athleticism as Portugal’s starters in the wide playmaker role (João Mário and Bernardo Silva). However, athleticism aside, Fernandes’ ability to pick an intricate pass, create something out of nothing or score from various areas of the pitch exceeds that of the aforementioned starters.
One could speculate for an eternity and analyse all that statistics the world has to offer regarding Fernandes and what he could offer to Portugal this summer. The reality is that the Seleção are currently blessed with an endless pool of talent in the midfield – which of course means that the 32-year-old may not even make it to Russia this summer.
That said, if he continues to maintain the quality of performances he’s executed of late, I would be very surprised if his name is not included in the 23-man squad.
By Marino Peixoto