Bruno Fernandes will remain as Manchester United captain despite severe criticism of the Portuguese midfielder’s behavior in their 7-0 capitulation at Liverpool.
Fernandes was rebuked for refusing to track back when Stefan Bajcetic went past him, feigning injury after a clash with Ibrahima Konate and pushing assistant referee Adam Nunn in the second half of United’s joint worst defeat.
The midfielder was also accused of asking to be substituted late in the game, although United sources later denied that was the case and said the player was merely trying to clarify his position.
Chris Sutton, the former Chelsea and Blackburn striker, claimed Fernandes should be stripped of the captaincy for such petulant behavior while former United defender Gary Neville branded his actions as “disgraceful” and “embarrassing”.
But Erik ten Hag has jumped to the defense of Fernandes before the first leg of United’s Europa League Round of 16 tie at home to Real Betis on Thursday, when the manager has demanded an immediate response to the Anfield debacle.
And, despite admitting that the Portuguese had things to learn from the experience, Ten Hag insisted he will retain the armband whenever the official club captain Harry Maguire – who rarely features now – is not playing.
Asked if Fernandes would remain as captain, the United manager said: “Yes, definitely. He’s playing a brilliant season, he’s had a really important role in why we’re in the position where we are because he’s giving energy to the team, not only running a lot at the highest intensity but also in the right way and right direction.
“He’s pointing and coaching players, he’s an inspiration for the whole team, but no one is perfect. Everyone has his mistakes and everyone has to learn. I have to learn, he will learn as well because he’s intelligent. I’m really happy to have Bruno Fernandes in the team and that he’s captain when Harry is not on the pitch.”
Fernandes also drew steadfast support from Marcus Rashford, who claimed his teammate’s actions were partly born of his desperation to win.
“Like the manager said, nobody is perfect, sometimes you want to win so bad you end up doing things that are a little bit out of character,” the United striker said. “But I 100 percent support Bruno and am behind him and as a team we have to support him because he’s a fantastic player and we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in if he wasn’t playing games for us.
“I love playing with Bruno, for a forward like me he’s a perfect player to play with. He’s been a good leader for us even when he’s not been captain, which is always a good sign, he’s helped other players become better leaders and the reality of it is we can’t be a team organized with just one leader being captain.
“He’s done a lot in terms of bringing his leadership skills in, that was from the moment he arrived. I don’t have anything negative to say about Bruno.”
‘We didn’t give up. That’s nonsense’
Rashford also refuted any suggestions that United threw in the towel against Liverpool as the club’s top scorer called for a swift reaction against Betis, who are fifth in La Liga and managed by former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini.
“We didn’t give up, that’s nonsense,” Rashford said. “We were disorganized, yes, communication was bad, yes, that’s why we conceded the goals. But it comes down to the fact that I believe everyone was trying to get back into the game that much, we came away from the team’s principles in and out of possession.
“I felt like the forwards were just trying to press as a unit but we weren’t connected with the midfield. And then the same with the midfield and the defense. We were trying to get a grip of the game at 2-0 and 3-0, we were talking but I don’t think we were really in agreement of what to do.
“Listen, it’s happened and the only thing we can do is learn from it and move on. I’m happy and grateful we have another game quickly because we have an opportunity to take a step forward from the last game and put it behind us. There’s no point dwelling on what happened. We just press the reset button.
“Just losing against Liverpool is enough, it doesn’t matter the scoreline – when you lose a game against Liverpool or any of your biggest rivals it cuts deep.”
Ten Hag is confident he will get a reaction. “We win together, we lose together. We make a mess on Sunday and we have to deal with it,” he said. “They reflected well [on the defeat]. We also know in a season setbacks will always be there and it was a huge setback, that’s clear.
“There were a lot of lessons in it and that can help us for the future, that’s the positive. We were really below average, especially mentally wise. We have to take the lesson, if we want to be a big team and we want to win trophies then you have to act differently.”