How Fred has already given Manchester United what they need
If there was a moment that encapsulated Fred’s first Manchester United season in a microcosm it was in the Premier League defeat at Wolves.
Fred received the ball 25 yards from goal, miscontrolled, Wolves seized on the lapse and equalised. Positive intentions but a negative outcome.
Fred was playing ahead of Nemanja Matic and if it were Matic whom collected the pass from David de Gea the goalkeeper would have almost instantly received the ball. Matic is risk-aversive, sometimes infuriatingly for teammates such as Jesse Lingard, who despaired at his backwards pass when United had the space for a breakaway at 1-1 at Anfield last December.
Matic’s selection against Leicester at the weekend was all but confirmed at Carrington on Friday morning yet it was still daring of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to replace him with Fred on 67 minutes with United narrowly ahead. That marked Fred’s first competitive appearance in 143 days.
It is easy to forget the tactical acumen Solskjaer displayed during his honeymoon period, be it Lingard as a centre forward, Romelu Lukaku from the right or Paul Pogba targeting Chelsea from the left.
The introductions of Fred and Tahith Chong at the weekend were proactive measures to counter United’s reticence. Fred showed in half the time Matic had why he is already poised to usurp the Serbian in the midfield pecking order.
Twice Fred sparked attacks that result in attempts at goal and his discipline was immaculate. Positioned on the left of the midfield axis, his collaboration with Tahith Chong interrupted Leicester’s sterile dominance and put United on the front foot again. Even an unsuccessful dribble was forceful enough to spring United on the counter.
The handling of a midfield devoid of Pogba was one of the most tactful aspects of Solskjaer’s in-game management. With Matic and Scott McTominay starting together, Matic held the fort while McTominay was allowed off the leash to set the tempo and get about a Leicester side that, on the teamsheet, was arguably stronger. When Matic’s number was up, it was McTominay’s turn to take the back seat and Fred to provide the adventure.
Solskjaer cautioned McTominay was ‘learning his new role as a sitting midfielder’, what with United not replacing Marouane Fellaini or Ander Herrera. Fred was billed as Michael Carrick’s replacement though United have only used him as the sole holding midfielder at Molineux, where he was culpable for the equaliser.
The preference for a midfield two provides Fred with more security and his best performances last season – away at Paris Saint-Germain and at home to Barcelona – were from deeper roles alongside McTominay. He is not as vulnerable with a partner and United have accommodated the leftie on the left, whereas at the start of Fred’s United career Jose Mourinho still catered for ‘His Excellency’ on that side.
A foolishly scheduled mid-July wedding on the back of a largely inept campaign always meant Fred would have to wait until September to get going. The irony is he was bright in friendly cameos against Inter Milan, Tottenham and AC Milan and that sharpness was patent against Leicester; Fred completed all nine of the passes he attempted.
The highlight came within five minutes of his introduction when Fred dispossessed Ricardo Pereira inside the Leicester third and angled a pass for Andreas Pereira. Pleasingly for Solskjaer, Kasper Schmeichel’s loose kick to the Leicester right-back was rushed by the Road Runner Chong.
In the 83rd minute, Leicester’s attempt to play out from their own area was interrupted by Chong and Fred again. Schmeichel found Pereira, closed down instantly by Fred, and the ball went back to Jonny Evans. Before Evans could even release the ball for Schmeichel, Fred had already signalled to Marcus Rashford to close down the ‘keeper, though Chong was already on his case. Six seconds later, Leicester had ceded possession.
On a day where United tactically treated a home game like an away game, Fred was the ideal conduit between defence and attack. His average positioning was more advanced than Matic’s and Solskjaer will feel that justified his choice of Matic as a starter, with Fred introduced to enliven the attack. A third of Fred’s passes were forward and United restricted Leicester to one genuine chance – in the fourth minute.
Fred’s lack of playing time in August predictably resulted in speculation over his future. An outlandish Italian outlet clearly recalled the last Brazilian midfielder left United on loan for Fiorentina, so linked Fred with Fiorentina. There was about as much chance of that happening as Bruno Fernandes going to United.
Starts against Astana and Rochdale for Fred are inevitable and a chance to warm up for the main events. Arsenal and Liverpool are visiting Old Trafford over the next five weeks.
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