In the first of our new feature pieces looking back on the weekend’s action with the benefit of a cold towel over the head, Sam Dalling considers what Eddie Howe might do if Bruno cannot take residency in the middle for a while….
The thing about Bruno being in the middle, is his tendency to know precisely what is required.
So not having him there, well, that leaves one serious gap to plug.
Against Fulham on Sunday, Bruno’s half-time withdrawal did not prevent United claiming a late three points.
His ankle had twisted earlier, one of those impact injuries that will have anyone “who knows” wincing. Sometimes, despite initial swelling, actual damage can be minimal. A week of slowly teasing peas into a semi-thawed state does the trick. But if there are ligaments involved, then recovery can take much longer.
Bruno was distraught. He tried to play on but signalled to the bench shortly before the break. Eddie Howe admitted he ought to have withdrawn the midfielder more swiftly. Bruno eventually left SJP on crutches, although that, and the presence of a protective boot, can be misleading. Caution is always exercised.
But how do United cope if Bruno is absent for an extended period? Or any period at all for that matter. A trip to Crystal Palace is just days away, and then there is the small matter of a two-legged semi final.
A Bruno-less United have taken just two points from the three Premier League games this season. He is the complete midfielder, a market-leader in what he does. Both what he brings and what he represents are irreplaceable.
On Sunday, Bruno’s departure, initially, saw no formation change. Joelinton dropped onto the left of the midfield three, with Sean Longstaff sliding centrally.
No-one in this United side splits opinion like Longstaff. But this was undoubtedly one of his best performances. He completed 87% of his 54 passes. Slap bang in the middle is, it seems, where he can excel.
As an ‘8’s, Longstaff’s speed of movement is slightly lacking. In the summer, Longstaff takes the new ball for Tynemouth Cricket Club and he has the mobility of a traditional quick bowler. Fit, strong and able to run all day, yes. But agile? If the ball is not precisely where he needs it to be, he struggles to adjust his body. That is often what causes the SJP groans.
But as a ‘6’ Longstaff will receive the majority of his passes from centre-backs, with him then being the one to find the gaps. He has the ability, the range, to do that. It is the role Jonjo Shelvey played last year, but sadly he is not, for the time being at least, an option.
If Longstaff continues in that role, Sven Botman and Fabian Schär will need to be a little more selective. Longstaff is not able to wriggle his way out of tight corners under pressure like Bruno, nor will he want to try. But that is no slight on him: the Brazilian has drawn more than twice as many fouls (42) as the next nearest United player.
Joelinton being deployed deeper is no bad thing either. He leads United’s regular starters (12 or more league games) in successful tackles or interceptions (4.37) per 90 minutes. His steel is better suited centrally.
ASM replaced Bruno on Sunday, and suddenly United had balance. Maxi can be as frustrating as he is brilliant, but teams cannot afford to leave him unattended. Despite playing the equivalent of just 5.1 games, only Joelinton has completed more successful dribbles (20 as opposed to 22). Gone, fortunately, are the ‘Give it Maxi and see’ days but it is inescapable that Newcastle carry more threat, more unpredictability, with him.
But does that leave Dan Burn too exposed? Being from Blyth might make him unbeatable in song, but as excellent as Burn has been, having Joelinton and Joe Willock in front of him helps. Opposition will fancy themselves down the right if Howe opts for ASM on the left of a front three.
The last 20 minutes on Sunday saw eventual match-winner Alexander Isak replace Willock. Traditionalists purred and Generation Z’ers scrambled to find someone who no longer requires ID to buy alcohol, and asked ‘what the fuck is this 4-4-2 thing you speak of?’
Can Wilson and Isak play together has been the question since the latter arrived. From a relatively small sample size, the signs are promising. It was from Wilson’s cross that Isak broke Fulham’s resistance.
Wilson, Isak ASM and Miguel Almiron are United’s four best attackers. But could Howe risk starting them altogether? That would be a little harsh on Willock, who would likely miss out on a Longstaff-Joelinton partnership. And at least if there is a three man midfield, Burn would have some cover.
What Bruno’s absence, if confirmed, could lead to is a change in transfer plan. Howe has been pretty frank in stating that January business will likely be dictated by who is left standing come the final week. The Summer may come early, with links to Rúben Neves exciting.
For now though, Howe will surely play the odds, and keep it conservative. Since the defeat to Cambridge United, he has, according to fbref, started with 4-3-3 in 43 out of 44 games.
And so should Bruno miss the trips south, the favourite is surely:
But who would you play with no Bruno in the middle?
Sam Dalling @SamJDalling