Portugal’s implosion against Germany on Saturday, when they led courtesy of a stunning counter-attacking goal before slumping to a 4-2 defeat, has dramatically raised the stakes ahead of tonight’s final group game against France (8.0).
Holders Portugal, 3-0 victors over Hungary in their opening match, need a response and the pressure on Fernandes to deliver was only amplified by his anaemic showing against the 2014 world champions.
It was a performance that did little to quieten the critics who claim United’s talisman does not influence big games enough and earned rebukes from Graeme Souness, who decried Fernandes’s perceived petulance, and Lee Dixon, who condemned the Portuguese’s reaction at 3-1 down and accused him of “just strolling on the ball”.
Perhaps, though, there were other factors behind his lethargy. No player across Europe’s top five leagues has played more games for club and country this season than the 70 Fernandes has managed.
Only Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong and Portugal’s Ruben Dias, who also looked well short against Germany, have played more minutes than the 5,455 amassed by Fernandes (below).
If he is struggling, maybe it is because there is very little left in the tank after a gruelling 12 months in which he has been given little rest.
Since the Premier League resumed in June last year, Fernandes has played a staggering 83 games and was afforded just 19 days’ holiday between United losing in the Europa League semi-finals to Sevilla on August 16 last year and Portugal facing Croatia on September 5.
On 38 occasions over that period, he has enjoyed just two or fewer days’ rest between matches and only three days’ rest on 19 occasions. United’s involvement in the Europa League final late last month meant he also had only eight days between that game and a 31-minute run-out in a pre-Euros warm-up against Spain on June 4.
It has been an onerous workload and maybe now Fernandes and Portugal are paying the price, just as United seemed to during the final couple of months of the campaign, when his output waned noticeably.
Whether it is entirely to blame for his drop-off is another matter. The Liverpool and Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum has played more games than anyone over the past season – bar Fernandes – and he has looked full of energy en route to his country collecting maximum points from the group stage, scoring three times and revelling in an advanced role.
De Jong, too, has been sprightly, despite racking up the second most minutes of any player in Europe’s top five leagues in 2020-’21, although Netherlands did have an easier group than Portugal.
Germany was not the first big game in which Fernandes has disappointed in the past year. United failed to score in six league games against so-called ‘big six’ opposition and two of the matches in which he did find the net were heavy defeats, by Tottenham (6-1) and Liverpool (4-2).
Fernandes also disappointed in United’s shambolic 3-2 Champions League defeat by RB Leipzig, the Carabao Cup semi-final defeat by Manchester City in January and the Europa League final against Villarreal, but the idea he never shows up in those sort of fixtures is, perhaps, unfair.
He scored a dramatic winner in the 3-2 FA Cup victory over Liverpool, the 2-1 Champions League success away to Paris St-Germain and in the impressive 2-0 triumph over the champions, City, in early March, before his form began to dip.
What is clear, though, is that he needs to offer far more against France than he managed against Germany, with Portugal’s Euro hopes on the line. No shots, successful crosses, dribbles, tackles or interceptions told their own story and, defensively, he was bypassed too easily.
Fernandes became accustomed to upstaging Pogba in a United shirt. He needs to do it again for Portugal.