It was like Bruno Fernandes had never been away. Among the on-pitch imponderables as Premier League football resumed was whether one of its most in-form players would be able to continue the level of performance that had revitalised Manchester United’s season after he joined the club in January.
Ninety minutes in north London provided a conclusive answer. It was apt that the 25-year-old converted the 81st-minute penalty that earned United a 1-1 draw at Tottenham because Fernandes had been at the heart of everything exciting about the visitors throughout the game.
Those around him endured an off night. Anthony Martial had one of those games where he almost evaporates into thin air, while Marcus Rashford made the right runs but end product eluded him, and Daniel James lasted 62 minutes and was lucky to stay on that long.
In fact, it was only when Paul Pogba was introduced as a substitute, just past the hour mark and with his side trailing, that Fernandes had someone operating on the same plane, raising the tantalising prospect of just how far the two of them in tandem could take United in the coming weeks.
This was Pogba’s first appearance since Boxing Day, and the interim period has been filled with speculation over his future amid persistent links to Juventus and Real Madrid. His attitude and commitment are repeatedly called into question, but having been left out of the starting lineup, he responded with a display mixing focus and guile to help Fernandes earn parity.
Pogba’s quick feet created the chance for United to cancel out Steven Bergwijn’s 27th-minute opener. The midfielder beat Eric Dier from a standing start on the right flank, shifting the ball past the Tottenham defender with ease before slowing a fraction to induce contact, a clumsy challenge that Dier instantly regretted as referee Jonathan Moss pointed to the spot.
Fernandes sent goalkeeper Hugo Lloris the wrong way to take his tally to six goal involvements — three goals and three assists — from as many league games since signing from Sporting Lisbon. The prospect of him maintaining this form will boost Ole Gunnar Solsjaer’s confidence that United can at least hang on to fifth place, which will be good enough to secure Champions League football if Manchester City’s UEFA ban is upheld.
Having a motivated and interested Pogba would be considered by many to be an unexpected bonus for Solskjaer, who commented after the game that the World Cup winner “always has a point to prove to himself and to us.”
“He did everything a midfielder should do; he tackled, got on the ball, played passed and showed some skill, so it is fantastic to have him back,” Solskjaer said. “He’s always wanted to play. He loves football. It’s been great having him back training with us. He is such an enthusiastic and passionate boy, and I think everyone can see the quality that he can provide.”
That Solskjaer’s side had been on the back foot was due to a combination of Bergwijn’s single-minded determination, erroneous defending and a goalkeeping error that had former United captain Roy Keane fuming in the studio of UK broadcaster Sky Sports.
Luke Shaw went chasing a ball he had headed into the air near the halfway line, leaving Bergwijn space to run at United’s defence. Harry Maguire looked frozen in time as the Dutch international breezed past him and bore down on David De Gea’s goal.
The shot was well struck but straight at the United keeper, who nonetheless could only divert the ball high into his own net. Spurs had been slow into stride but after the enforced first-half drinks break, sparked into life and after taking the lead, there were clear signs of the organisational work Jose Mourinho has done in the build-up to Project Restart.
The Tottenham manager admitted in February that he would give up on the season if he had the choice. Failing to secure victory on Friday continues to leave his side with an outside chance of Champions League qualification, but he surely does not feel so despondent.
“For 70 minutes, when we had the energy, we were strong with the ball and we knew what we wanted to do,” Mourinho told the BBC. “I have to admit for the last 15 minutes I would love to have had Lucas Moura here, Dele Alli here. The last 15 minutes were difficult for us.”
As well as Bergwijn’s moment of magic, there was enough to like about Erik Lamela’s industry, while the mere presence of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min suggests they have a fighting chance. Yet again, however, there was no clean sheet as an individual error at the back curtailed progress.
Dier was only available because the Football Association has dragged its heels in issuing punishment for a misconduct charge decided in April for an offence in early March, when he climbed into the stands to confront a fan. Having rued Dele Alli’s absence due to a ban of his own, Dier’s inclusion ended up costing Spurs, too.
Indeed, it might have been even worse for Mourinho. Having stood just nine minutes from defeat, United almost completed a dramatic turnaround as the game entered the 90th minute when Fernandes went down under another Dier challenge and Moss pointed to the spot.
VAR intervened correctly and United were denied — “In this case the VAR gave the truth,” Mourinho told Sky Sports — but the fact Fernandes was again front and centre was no surprise.