Bernard: The Bargain Bin Shakhtar Midfield Star

 • by Manuel Veth
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It is amazing how fast perspectives change in football. Bernard is an excellent example of how a player can turn from bright prospect to fallen hero, only to be resurrected as one of the hottest prospects among this summer’s free agents. 

In 2013 top European clubs like Borussia Dortmund, who wanted him to replace Mario Götze, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and various sides from Spain and Italy were in the hunt for the diminutive playmaker from Atlético Mineiro. Dortmund, however, signed Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shakhtar Donetsk for €27.5million and the Ukrainians used their Brazilian network to re-invest the money earned from the Mkhitaryan transfer by signing Bernard for €25million.

From the outside, the transfer was a bit of a surprise. Shakhtar today still play attractive football and are able to compete with the big European clubs. But the competitive nature of the Ukrainian Premier League has been diminished due to the conflict in the Donbass region and the bankruptcy of top clubs Dnipro and Metalist Kharkiv, leaving just 12 clubs playing in the Ukrainian Premier League. 

Looking back, one has to remember the Ukrainian Premier League was a strong league at the time. Shakhtar were tipped by many to become the first club from the post-Soviet space to win the Champions League. Furthermore, the club employed several South Americans and was deemed as a springboard for Brazilians that wanted to sign with the big clubs in Western Europe. 

Bernard, it was felt, had made a smart career choice. But his first year at Shakhtar ended in a disaster. On the field he failed to replace Mkhitaryan, scoring just two goals and supplying seven assists in 18 games. Nonetheless, he was called up to represent Brazil at the 2014 World Cup where he played twice during the group stage against Croatia and Mexico. 

The one game that everyone remembered, however, was the 7-1 semi-final defeat against Germany where Bernard was brought into the starting XI to replace the injured Neymar.

Like the rest of the team that fateful night, Bernard ran around the field like a headless chicken as the Seleção received a beating of epic proportions on their home turf. Like red wine on a white shirt, it was the sort of performance that left a stain on his national team career, and Bernard has never been called up to represent Brazil again.

Once back in Ukraine things failed to improve. During the tournament, airliner MH-17 was shot down over Donbass. The region had turned into an open war zone, and Bernard was among the Shakhtar players briefly refusing to return to Ukraine, citing security concerns and the deteriorating political situation. 

The club detected opportunism and blamed agent Kia Joorabchian for manipulating the problematic situation in Ukraine to force Shakhtar to sell the players below market value to clubs in the West. Shakhtar owner Rinat Akhmetov promised he would not sell any of the players, even if it meant them idly sitting out the remainder of their contracts.

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Bernard, therefore, had to stay in Ukraine, but he was never the same again. That was until the 2016/17 season started. Shakhtar had just parted ways with legendary head coach Mircea Lucescu and hired the promising Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca.

Under Fonseca, Shakhtar continued to develop their cultured approach to playing football and, most importantly for Bernard, Fonseca would also rekindle the careers of many players that struggled under the sometimes grumpy Lucescu.

Fonseca continued to play 4-2-3-1, but the attacking players were given more creative freedom. While Bernard was only seen as a playmaker by Lucescu, Fonseca gives the diminutive Brazilian the freedom to roam. As a result, the three attacking midfielders, Bernard, Taison and Marlos, often switch positions and, as was evident against Roma, create attacking moves that make Shakhtar look like a swarm of insects when moving forward.

The result is unpredictable beauty, and Bernard is a crucial player in that concert of football artwork. Fast and technically gifted, the Brazilian’s output of five goals and three assists in 17 Ukrainian Premier League games may not reflect his full bandwidth of abilities.

Usually heading to the centre of the pitch when making an attacking run on either side, Bernard often creates room for an overlapping run by one of the wing backs, which in Shakhtar’s system are often part of attacking runs. This was evident against Roma in the Champions League last week where the Miners sliced the Italians open on countless occasions by attacking with two men on each side of the field.

As a result, Bernard’s numbers don’t leap off the page as he often plays the second last pass that leads to a goal rather than the final pass. But that should not diminish the value of the Brazilian playmaker to Shakhtar Donetsk. In fact, Bernard, alongside Fred, has now become the hottest Shakhtar prospect on the transfer market.

Currently earning a reported €4.5 million a year, Bernard’s contract will expire on July 1. Shakhtar would like to renew the winger’s deal. But his recent performances in Europe mean there is now increased interest in Bernard who has been subject of Tottenham transfer rumours.

In his current form, Bernard will, however, be free to choose where he wants to continue his career and Tottenham will not be without competition as Galatasaray, Napoli, Jiangsu Suning, Hebei China Fortune, Palmeiras and clubs in Germany are interested in signing the Brazilian.

With Manchester City transfer target Fred reportedly priced at around €45million, Premier League clubs would do well to take a serious look at soon-to-be free agent Bernard instead.

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