independent– Bruno Fernandes’ match-winning penalty against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday night was Manchester United’s first league goal at Old Trafford in 324 minutes of football. The first, in fact, since the Bruno Fernandes penalty in the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last month.
Half of Fernandes’ league goals for United since his arrival in January have been penalties. It’s an even higher proportion – closer to two-thirds – across all competitions. Not that he minds or pays any attention to those who write off his impressive goal-scoring record as that of a penalty merchant.
“People criticize it saying ‘penalties, penalties,’ but I’ve seen a lot of teams losing finals, World Cups, Euros, Champions Leagues on penalties,” Fernandes said post-match. “It is an important part of the game.” He’s right. Regularly winning and converting penalties is an incredibly useful skill to have and United appear to have it.
Saturday’s penalty was already their seventh of the season in all competitions, which is high even when considering the league-wide increase of spot-kicks since the change to the handball law. Of United’s fellow Premier League clubs, only Leicester City and Chelsea have won more spot-kicks since the start of this season.
Add in the 22 penalties that United won last term and you have a mounting body of evidence which suggests that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players are doing something specific to earn so many. Only a couple of last season’s were contentious. Only three were for handball. Solskjaer’s preference for quick, fast passing – a consistent instruction to his players throughout his tenure – may be the key factor
But whatever United’s penalty-winning secret is, it does not make for a functioning attack on its own and the problem is that they are in danger of becoming dependent. Since the start of last season, 13 of United’s 79 Premier League goals have come from the spot. That may not sound like much but it is the highest proportion of any top-flight team to have played across both campaigns.
Run back through Fernandes’ record and United’s recent reliance on penalties becomes clearer. Six of Fernandes’ 12 penalties have broken the deadlock in games which United have gone on to win. Three have been winning goals, while another earned a late point at White Hart Lane in June. Of all 12, only those in the summer’s two semi-final defeats and the 6-1 against Tottenham have had no effect on the result.
This provokes an obvious question: where would United be without Fernandes’ penalty-taking ability? Would their start to this season be even less convincing without this knack of winning spot kicks – a knack which could still prove to be unsustainable? For an idea of how they can struggle going forward, watch Saturday’s win over West Bromwich again, only without the Fernandes penalty.
It was not United’s most anemic attacking performance under Solskjaer but they still only created two clear-cut openings – one for Anthony Martial in the first half, one for Marcus Rashford when already ahead – and otherwise struggled to assert themselves against a winless newly-promoted side who had the joint-worst defence in the league and are widely expected to be relegated.
Solskjaer was honest about his side’s display after the final whistle. “It’s definitely not a step forward performance-wise,” he said. “We played really well against Everton last time. That’s a performance I was really happy with. This one was way below par and sometimes three points are more important than performance, even though we know that to move up the table we have to play better.”
Hatching a plan on how to break down teams who defend in a low block should be the priority. It has been the problem ever since Solskjaer’s permanent appointment more than 18 months ago. The only real progress has been the arrival of a player who takes risks in possession and always plays on the front foot in the form of Fernandes. It’s time to consider whether there are other combinations and partnerships that could also help.
Edinson Cavani is certainly not the long-term answer at 33-years-old and with a chequered injury record behind him but played well when introduced for the final half hour on Saturday, with his movement off-the-ball particularly encouraging. Donny van de Beek’s tendency to arrive late in the penalty area will offer further unpredictability when – or if – the marquee summer signing is handed an extended run of starts.
But until United find that fluency in possession against teams who do not leave space in behind, there are going to be a lot more games like Saturday’s which come down to their ability to draw a foul and Fernandes’ potency from 12 yards. On its own, that is not enough to transform Solskjaer’s United into a consistent, winning football team. But too often, it is all they have.