“Cannot score, cannot pass, doesn’t have positional sense, too frail.” This was the general consensus on Fred, a player who has massively underperformed during his stint as a United player. It’s hard to imagine how a player who was wanted by both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League. Let us try and look at Fred’s time at United and how his role has evolved over time.
What made United splash the cash on Fred?
When Fred arrived in the Premier League in the summer of 2018, he was widely viewed as Mourinho’s final piece in his midfield jigsaw. Before his arrival, Jose had spent the previous season playing a Midfield 2 of Matic and Pogba which caused serious issues within the United team. Playing this midfield duo not only limited the attacking prowess of Pogba, but it also left United’s defense in a state of disorganization. Amid cries from the fans, Jose resisted the temptation of playing a midfield 3 because he felt that none of the midfielders were capable of playing in a Midfield 3.
At Shakhtar, Fred played in a Midfield pivot where his primary job was to link the attacking play by threading balls in between the lines. Under the management of Paulo Fonseca, Shakhtar played an expansive 4-2-3-1 formation with the fullbacks bombing forward, wingers drifting in to form an attacking midfield 3 with 2 holding midfielders sitting in front of the centrebacks. During an attack as the fullbacks pushed forward, the centrebacks drifted wide in order to occupy the spaces on the wings. This prompted the midfield 2 to drop into the spaces left by the centrebacks and playing breakthrough passes for the midfield 3, who occupied dangerous positions in between the lines. This was primarily the job that Fred excelled at and earned laurels throughout the footballing world.
A TORRID START
During his first season at United, Fred made his debut in a 2-1 win over Leicester City at Old Trafford. However, things went downhill from there on and he made only 25 appearances in all competitions for United during the 2018/19 season. There were rumours that Mourinho never wanted Fred to join the club and he only agreed to the transfer because he felt that at least one midfield signing would be better than not signing anyone at all. Although Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 after a poor run of form that saw United drop to 19 points behind the league leaders City, Fred’s fortunes didn’t change a lot. After struggling to cement a place under Mourinho, his struggles continued under the new manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Players like Mctominay, Pereira, and Matic alongside Paul Pogba were often given the nod ahead of the Brazilian.
During the early days of Ole’s regime, Fred found it hard to cement a place for himself in the starting 11. One of his most notable performances during Ole’s interim spell came in the shock win over PSG in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16. However, the United team that night was heavily plagued by injuries and suspensions. After the return of injured/suspended players in the midfield, he was again relegated to the bench. At the beginning of Solksjaer’s first full season in charge of United, Fred failed to make the first team but after Paul Pogba suffered a long-term injury, Fred became a regular starter for United and has more or less cemented his place in the United team ever since and also seems to be a major part of Ralf’s plans.
CEMENTING HIS FIRST-TEAM POSITION
Ole deployed Fred in a deeper role at United, in a midfield pivot shielding the Back 4 just like he used to do at Shakhtar. But unlike Shakhtar, United were hesitant in pushing the fullbacks forward and had slow centrebacks with little to no recovery pace. As a result, he found himself in a dilemma of whether to attack or defend, whether to push forward or drop deep in order to shield the centrebacks. For the majority of the 2020-21 season, Ole played with a midfield pivot of Mctominay and Fred, popularly known as “McFred,” with Pogba drifting to the left-wing. The problem with this pivot was that both of them were instructed to shield Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof throughout the game and that is why the gap between the back 6 and the front 4 became too big. This gap made it difficult to thread passes in between the lines for the Front 4 of Bruno, Rashford, Martial, Greenwood, or Pogba. Ultimately, United failed to break down teams while attacking and relied heavily on counterattacks to score goals.
One of the biggest criticisms of Fred under Ole’s setup was that the Brazilian failed to thread forward passes and relied heavily on sideways and backward passes which frustrated the United faithful. There were several question marks raised as to why Ole was constantly picking Fred ahead of the Dutch midfield maestro Donny Van de Beek. But Ole’s faith in the Brazilian seems to have been justified by Rangnick’s selection in his first couple of games.
THE ROLE OF FRED UNDER RANGNICK’s SETUP
Ralf Rangnick has a well-defined role for the Brazilian in the team. His intent of turning the Brazilian into a workhorse in the midfield has been made clear in the games against Palace and Norwich. In both these games, Fred’s ability to pass the ball effortlessly as well as press the middle of the pitch has become clearly evident. Fred has been pushed forward and instructed to play in a more advanced role rather than just sitting back and defending all the time.
A major factor that seems to have benefitted Fred is the fullbacks pushing forward and stretching the play in the attacking third. As the fullbacks push forward and stretch the field, Fred’s best attribute of dropping into the spaces vacated by them and threading beautiful passes in all directions comes into play, exactly what he used to do at Shakhtar. Another major criticism of Fred was the fact that more often than not, the gap between him and Mctominay was very less which led to United playing very narrowly in the middle of the park, unable to stretch the play. This has been clearly worked upon as both of them played a more expansive brand of football during the past couple of games.
Rangnick has also made it clear that he wants Fred to get involved in the final third, giving United an extra player to break down teams who sit back and defend for 90 minutes with a deep line. Under Ole, the front four were usually marked out of the game in the final third which reduced their ability to score against tight defenses. Against Crystal Palace, the goal only came when Fred occupied an attacking position in the final third that gave the team an extra player during the attack other than the Front four. The Brazilian’s defensive prowess was also on display as United managed to win the ball in the final third more times than any other match in the Post-Fergie era.
Fred has ridden the storm at United with fans and pundits being heavily critical of his performances and wondering why United paid a huge sum for him. Not to forget, United have had South American players in the past like Diego Forlan and Juan Sebastian Veron who had massive potential but seem to have crumbled under the pressure of playing at Old Trafford. But the Brazilian International finally seems to be enjoying his best period in a United Shirt.
FRED HAS FINALLY VINDICATED HIS SIGNING!!
It’s hard to imagine how a player who is a regular starter for the Brazilian National Team massively underperformed in a United Shirt, however, Fred seemed to answer this question after Brazil had destroyed Uruguay 4-1 in a CONMEBOL world cup qualifier in October. Brazilian head coach Tite deployed Fred alongside Fabinho in a midfield pivot which allowed Fred to bomb forward and join the attacking play without having to worry about his defensive duties as he had Fabinho covering for him. After the game, Fred himself acknowledged the fact that his best position on the pitch is as a box-to-box midfielder and not a defensive number 6. Although Rangnick doesn’t have the luxury of deploying a traditional number 6 like Fabinho, Fernandinho, or Rodri, he seems to have discovered a way of not only playing a defensive midfield pivot but also giving them the license to bomb forward.
Fred has certainly turned a corner at United. From being a player who was subject to constant criticism and abuse on social media, he has now earned the true support of Red Devils all over the globe. A player who found it difficult to adapt to life in the Premier League is now scoring goals with his weaker foot! As the Rangnick revolution is now well and truly underway, it seems that Fred is going to be a major part of this revolution. If the games against Palace and Norwich are a sign of things to come, it’ll not be long before Fred is serenaded by the Stretford End and becomes a major figure in this United team.