Richard Buxton: Give Bruno Fernandes the free rein he needs, Ole
United going defensive against top-6 rivals sees their creative spark deprived of the space he thrives on
Raising the bar for Manchester United has inevitably intensified the scrutiny on Bruno Fernandes.
His consistently high ceiling remains an outlier in an English Premier League season where recent results suggest a myriad of players and clubs are still noticeably out of sorts.
When Fernandes' performance dips, however, the Red Devils lack a contingency plan.
A rare subdued outing for the Portugal international in their 0-0 draw with Liverpool on Monday morning (Singapore time) laid bare the flimsiness of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side in their attempts to wrestle back the title from their arch-rivals.
They cannot function, let alone prosper, when he is not operating at peak capacity.
Fernandes' failure to score from open play in 837 minutes against the EPL's top-six sides mirrors United's inability to fully break their hoodoo against those teams, with just two wins from those 10 matches that he has been involved in since joining last year.
Beyond that, his core attributes were sorely lacking - with a meagre 58 per cent pass success rate, compounded by losing the ball 19 times and succeeding in only two of his seven duels against the defending champions in their underwhelming clash of the titans at Anfield.
Little wonder, then, that Solskjaer's assistant Mike Phelan openly berated Fernandes from the sidelines for failing to break down Juergen Klopp's patchwork defence.
Such lofty expectations come with the territory for the 26-year-old, who has already won as many EPL Player of the Month awards - four - in his first 12 months at Old Trafford as Cristiano Ronaldo amassed during his six years wearing United colours.
At the turn of the year, only Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski had been directly involved in more goals than Fernandes for the 20-time English champions.
Ironically, his demeanour after being substituted late on at Anfield was highly reminiscent of his compatriot's time at the Theatre of Dreams.
The five-time Ballon d'Or winner often cut a frustrated figure when he, too, came up short in the big games.
United expect better from their latest talisman because he has enabled them to aspire to it.
Without his creative influence, they would not even be part of the conversation for the crown, never mind leading the race with a three-point cushion at the summit.
Solskjaer going on the defensive in games with top-six opponents has seen Fernandes squeezed out. Liverpool were the latest to limit the spaces that he routinely occupies.
Downgrading him from a preferred No. 10 position to that centralised midfield role in such encounters means that he must work harder, instead of smarter.
But tomorrow morning's trip to Fulham offers a chance for him to be unshackled once more.
United's new-found status as flat-track bullies is indisputable, with the anomaly of an opening-day humiliation by Crystal Palace constituting their sole dropped points against teams residing in the bottom two-thirds of the EPL table in this campaign.
Affording Fernandes a free rein in the game with the lowly Londoners is a perfect opportunity to provide a much-needed confidence boost - as well as ensuring history does not repeat itself ahead of facing Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round on Monday morning.
If United are serious about sweeping all before them, Solskjaer needs to start learning to again help, rather than hinder, the one Red Devil capable of making it truly attainable.