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The Fantasy Football Debate: Cristiano Ronaldo or Bruno Fernandes?

As a keen fantasy football manager, I’ve been intrigued by Manchester United’s acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo. As a Manchester United fan, I’ve been excited, conflicted and confused by the signing; do we need him? What about Edinson Cavani? What about Mason Greenwood’s development and game time?

The FPL Community has spent the international break talking up, and down, and up again, the arguments for either player. ‘Bruno v Ronaldo [a thread]’ was practically trending on my Twitter timeline. With so many Wildcards activated on FanTeam and Fantasy Premier League, I wanted to give my two cents.

More accurately, though, I’ll be giving my three cents as I talk about the match up in three categories – style of play, set pieces and expected game time.

Before that, my caveat – there’s always a caveat – is that we’re comparing two players that don’t play in the same position on fantasy games so it comes with a host of variables. Are they the same price? What can be done with the extra funds? How many free transfers do you have? Have you activated your Wildcard? If you’re not having both there’s a slot for another player so you’ll need to weigh up Danny Ings (FWD) vs Ferran Torres (MID) or Dominic Calvert-Lewin (FWD) vs Diogo Jota (MID) for instance.

Every fantasy team is different, so there’s no hard and fast ruling on which player(s) offers the better solution for everyone.

Style of Play

On the face of it, without the deep snorkel dive into data, you could suggest that the arrival of Ronaldo will hamper Bruno Fernandes’s output, both in fantasy football terms and actual football terms – you only have to look to the midfielder’s displays at Euro 2020 to come to that hasty conclusion.

Talk to any Juventus fan – they’ll tell you Ronaldo made them a worse football team and they had to adapt to accommodate his needs. In his first season he scored 21 in 31 in Serie A but upped that to 31 in 33 and 29 in 33 in the following campaigns once the team shifted its style.

His personal performance, in terms of goals at least, is still up there with the very elite, but only when the team plays the way that Cristiano Ronaldo needs it to, and you could argue that the Portugal national team suffer the same fate here. Ronaldo having great numbers isn’t necessarily good for the team’s overall cohesion and performance.

For the Portuguese striker to continue scoring goals at the ripe old of age 36, and further on into his Manchester United contract, there’s no doubt the team will have to alter its approach even if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggests they won’t. Ronaldo, like a 13th century trebuchet, must be wheeled into position for optimal performance. He doesn’t run off the ball, he doesn’t press, hassle or hustle, unless it’s late in the game and his team are on the brink.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the trebuchet IS in place, and Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are slinging in crosses willy-nilly from deep areas, while Jadon Sancho is getting to the byline aplenty, that optimal performing trebuchet will be scoring goals by the bucket load. Just look at his two goals against Ireland in A Selecao’s recent World Cup qualifier. When it comes to the clutch, there’s no better goalscorer than Cristiano Ronaldo, unless that clutch moment is a penalty of course.

Set-Pieces

My last big memory of Ronaldo as a United player was from the 2007/08 season where he had two stand out penalty failures in the red shirt.

First, in the Champions League semi-final he blazed high and wide in the third minute of the first leg against Barcelona and then in the final, in the shootout no less, he saw his effort saved by Petr Cech. Big moments, big misses. Of course, this is anecdotal, and it certainly didn’t harm the team’s performance that season, so let’s look at the numbers.

His penalty record is fine – it’s about bang on average compared to the mean. Across the 2020/21 Premier League season, 81.6% of penalties were scored. Ronaldo has scored 26 from his last 31 spot kicks at club level, a conversion rate of 83.9%. Like I said, his record is average.

But we’re not comparing Ronaldo to the average taker, are we? We’re comparing him to Bruno Fernandes, who has scored an excellent 25 out of his last 26 at club level, a stunning 96.2% conversion.

This comparison has been amplified too by the international break where Ronaldo had a penalty well saved by Ireland’s Gavin Bazunu, when Fernandes in fact won the penalty. Since then, just a game later, Fernandes has scored from the spot for Portugal with Ronaldo returning from international duty early due to suspension.

As for free-kicks, Ronaldo scored just once in 69 league and Champions League free-kick attempts in his whole Juventus career. Three seasons of free-kicks. Three seasons of Paulo Dybala stood on watching him hammer it into the wall.

For context – one in 69 is a conversion rate of 1.45%. This means that if he’s stood 25-yards from goal at the Stretford End against Newcastle United on Saturday, there’s a 98.55% chance that he’ll blast it into section W203, row 59, seat Z.

There’s actually a comical compilation video on YouTube entitled: ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’s top 7 free kicks at the Juventus Stadium’. He hits the wall four times.

My recommendation to Solskjaer, if I were on the team of United analysts, would be for Bruno Fernandes to continue taking penalties and free-kicks. His record is better, period. My recommendation to Ole as a United fan, is for Bruno to take penalties until he misses when Ronaldo should take over the duty. That’s fair in my opinion.

Side note: If I were on the team of analysts and scouts at Manchester United Football Club, I highly doubt we would’ve putting together a case to sign a 36-year-old striker who has detrimental impacts on the performance of the team. But as I’m sat here drinking tea, pinky aloft, dressed in a Kermit costume, I’ll say that it’s none of my business. We all know, of course, the move was driven by the lure of having the most marketable footballer on the planet in the squad, coupled with the added incentive of snatching him from under the nose of Pep Guardiola.

Rant over and moving on

Expected Minutes

Let’s look now at how much game time we could expect the pair to play in the Premier League now that Champions League football is back on the table giving another factor for fantasy football managers to ponder.

Last season, CR7 missed Juventus’ first two Champions League group games due to Coronavirus and was slowly re-introduced to the set up after a much-needed recovery period, plus isolation. Of the six European games that he played while fully fit, he missed just one minute of action after being substituted having already bagged a brace against Barcelona. The knock-on impact of these full games in Europe was being rested twice in the surrounding Serie A fixtures. Now, Juventus’ desire to win the Champions League prioritising the competition over the league and openly stating that they signed him to take that step, has to be a huge factor here.

Surely Manchester United won’t prioritise the Champions League over the Premier League? Would they even have to prioritise given the breadth of the attacking options in the squad? Probably not. But there are clearly more attacking options available to United this year compared to Juventus last season. The Old Lady didn’t have Edinson Cavani on their list of substitutes, after all.

It should be noted, too, that on the two occasions Ronaldo was rested, it was before Champions League fixtures and never after. In fact, the following games after European fixtures last season, he scored eight goals in five matches. Massive returns.

The Fernandes comparison to Ronaldo in this area is a little tricky because Manchester United played seven more games in Europe than Juventus having reached the final of the Europa League, eventually losing to Villarreal on penalties.

Across the Champions League group stage period last season, though, Bruno Fernandes was rested just once in a Premier League game directly before or after a European fixture. This came against West Ham in a game that saw him enter the fray at half time with his team 1-0 down. He went on to create eight chances from open play and picking up the assist for Paul Pogba’s crucial equaliser midway through the second half on the way to Manchester United’s 3-1 win at the London Stadium.

I wouldn’t expect either player to be rested in the Champions League until the team has progressed to the knockout stages, and I would also expect both players to be substituted early in Premier League games before away European fixtures, whereby the game is already won. Of course, if the game is already won, there’s a high chance they’ll have returned plenty of fantasy football points as they walk off the field at Old Trafford to standing ovations with Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard waiting on the touchline.

Conclusion

If you’re basing your decision solely on expected game time, Bruno Fernandes wins because he doesn’t have a player of Cavani’s calibre competing in his position. If you’re looking at style of play, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already stated Ronaldo hasn’t been signed to be on the bench, so a tweak to accommodate the striker will happen, and therefore he’s your man.

The Ronaldo vs Bruno verdict though isn’t based on expected minutes, free-kick conversion rates or style of play. For me, it’s a bit duller than that. It must be based on one single piece of information, which could, though I doubt will, be offered to us by Solskjaer in Friday’s press conference; who takes the penalties?

If Ronaldo does indeed take over spot kick duties he must come into your fantasy team ahead of his compatriot because A) it’s clear you can’t have both assets and B) it’ll reduce Fernandes’ goals by 50% if last season is to go by. Even if they share penalties, something Marcus Rashford and Fernandes have split in previous seasons, that would reduce Bruno’s goals by 25%. In this instance, I’d lean towards Ronaldo if this were to happen, but arguably neither scenario should be on the cards.

If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does the right thing and continues with Bruno as Manchester United’s primary penalty and free-kick taker, then Ronaldo isn’t worth the outlay. There are better options up front. Ultimately, the ‘who will take penalties for United?’ question won’t be answered, I suspect, until 3:37pm on Saturday when Matt Ritchie brings down Mason Greenwood in the box…

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