After a disastrous recruitment campaign (bar the capture of Bas Dost) in the summer of 2016, Sporting appear to have learned from their mistakes.
A series of signings this close season have made an immediate and highly positive impact, as attested by a record of eight wins, two draws and zero defeats in ten games in all competitions in the new campaign.
One player in particular has been grabbing all the headlines, not least thanks to compiling a personal collection of goal-of-the-season contenders. But Bruno Fernandes brings far more to Sporting than goals. Patrick Ribeiro explains why.
The expectations in the green half of Lisbon are huge, as Jorge Jesus fights off the demons from his underwhelming second season in charge of Sporting and proceeds with his search for the club’s first Primeira Liga title for 16 years.
Jesus, among others, may well point to an unsuccessful market raid in the summer of 2016 that saw them fail to cover the loss of João Mário with the 12 signings made, as well as not being able to cater for a dip in form from Adrien Silva, Bryan Ruiz and others.
Nevertheless, Sporting’s hierarchy backed their manager with a sizeable investment again throughout preparations for the new campaign, which has in turn reignited the enthusiasm for football at the Estádio José Alvalade. The defence has been replenished with additions, whereas the likes of Rodrigo Battaglia and his Argentinean compatriot Marcos Acuña also find themselves firmly in the plans of their new manager.
Award-winning start to season
However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue against Bruno Fernandes holding the crown for signing of the season, as far as the Lions are concerned, as he swept up the Liga NOS Player of the Month award, on top of all other relevant gongs for the month of August.
Despite the delight upon his arrival, there was still a degree of mystique about the 23-year-old that couldn’t be shaken off when penning his latest deal, with the player emerging from Italian football without ever gracing homeland territory in his professional career.
Breaking through at Novara, the cultured Under-21 international took his first good impressions to Udinese after just one year in Italy, representing the ‘Bianconeri Friuliani’ for a spell that spanned a further three years before a switch to Sampdoria last season came calling. Much like at the Dacia Arena, Fernandes was able to assert himself in a youthful team and clock up a grand total of 119 Serie A appearances at his young age, acting as the chief creator for his side in the 2016/17 season.
But his time with the ‘Blucerchiati’ wouldn’t last as long as the Italian emblem had once envisioned, as Sporting swooped in for the Maia-born star by helping Sampdoria balance their finances. Fast-forward a few months and the transfer couldn’t look more nailed on, with Fernandes registering six goals in just nine first-team appearances so far this season – already surpassing his personal best for a single campaign. Better still, there’s not a bad goal in sight.
This thunderbolt into the top corner against Vitória Guimarães was voted the August goal of the month:
It’s the midfielder’s luck in front of goal that’s undoubtedly made him an instant hit with many onlookers, but for Sporting, in particular Jesus, there’s even more to Fernandes than meets the eye.
A common criticism placed upon the 63-year-old manager is that his teams often drift into the dark alley of predictability, with the three-time Primeira Liga champion retaining an enormous amount of trust in his ideals that sees greater emphasis being placed on getting the ball wide to supplement his forwards.
Such patterns have grown to make Sporting easy to read in attack, complicating matters further should they not find a goal in good time against overly-retreated opposition. The recent struggles at home to Steaua Bucharest back in August go a long way into exemplifying just how out of ideas they can look. Much to the club’s detriment, variation on the wings has also been kept to a minimum, but Jesus seems to have come across the optimum solution for his systematic methods.
At the centre of Sporting’s reinvention is the ascendency of Fernandes. Be it when appearing between the lines of midfield or charging into the channels of attack, the midfielder has so far been able to blend the duties of a standard number eight and that of a shadow striker that Jesus so often loves to pair up with his target men, subsequently diverting a crucial amount of attention away from the flanks.
With the playmaker pulling the strings behind the striker, the Lions have raised their goal output to three-per-game in all competitions, as opposed to the far more timid register of 1.25 goals-per-game whenever he’s deployed deeper, or simply unavailable. Last season’s output left Sporting with a more normalised figure (1.76 goals-per-game), but one that’s still some way away from the potential shown in recent weeks.
Going backwards, Fernandes’ work ethic and tactical understanding also retrieves a numerical superiority in the middle of the park that hadn’t been mastered by Sporting since the days João Mário, solidifying the team’s shape off the ball. Even last season’s flagrant Adrien dependency has, at the very least, been muted.
Then, of course, there’s his eye-catching ability to nab a goal from in and around box, which, along with the many facets to his game, has served Sporting well in equipping them with more answers for sticky situations. It’s through these “answers” that ‘the Green and Whites’ will get closest to their ultimate goal – to win the title.
Fernandes’ flexibility allows for a simple tactical switch that comes bearing plenty of gifts, maximising both the club’s creative prospects and its capability to transition into a state of midfield combativeness, meaning Jesus can find a happy medium between his tactical foundations and shortcomings.
Sportinguistas can, without a doubt, point towards Fernandes’ input as the fuel for recent success. They’ll be hoping there’s plenty more left in the tank to see them through their journey this season, resulting in a happy destination come May. And for Fernandes himself, with a place in Portugal’s World Cup squad in Russia a potential reward, the motivation to maintain his sensational start could not be greater.
By Patrick Ribeiro