Since arriving at Manchester United in the summer of 2018, Fred has been under a microscope with each and every passing minute. Every action he takes on a football pitch seems to be scrutinized by those trying to justify his shortcomings, or those, like me, trying to justify why those shortcomings aren’t actually so short. In recent weeks, the calls for Fred to be crowned one of United’s most important players have only grown, as he performs a more attack-minded role within the team’s double-pivot. So today, I present to you a dossier all about Manchester United’s Fred, and why Manchester United would be worse without him.
POSSESSION & POSITIONINGEmbed from Getty Images
Fred’s first season at Manchester United was one of trouble and turmoil. He struggled to establish himself in Mourinho’s midfield, and often looked lost in possession when he was given a chance. While not necessarily one-dimensional, he was certainly limited in his skillset, and often a liability on the ball. His passing and distribution was well below par for a Manchester United midfielder, and he clearly could not anchor a midfield all on his own in the sort of Ander Herrera mold that helped United win the Europa League back in 2018. But with each and every year, the Manchester United midfielder has only grown in confidence. His passing and progressive passing numbers skyrocketed back up to what they were at Shakhtar in his next two seasons, and he became an almost un-droppable figure. This season, Fred’s passing numbers have gone down, as he’s started to become even more progressive and risky with his passing. Instead of going backwards and sideways, the Brazilian midfielder often looks to spray low-driven, diagonal passes on his left foot toward his team’s forward-thinking players. He’s no longer just making safe and simple passes, but now looking to find a target man like Ronaldo early on in the team’s possession. Notably, the 28-year-old is also dribbling the ball less and less, and taking fewer touches before making the next pass. When he first arrived at Old Trafford, Fred was seen as someone who needed multiple touches before releasing an effective pass. He’s been more efficient in that regard, scanning the field more, and developing a greater awareness of his own strengths in comparison to his teammates, like Sancho and Shaw who are much more powerful when it comes to dribbling.
So what is Fred, you ask? He’s someone who can help United recycle play and spread the ball around, while providing quick cover in defensive transitions. His role on a football pitch is more commonly seen in the attacking half, which United spend the majority of their time. But Fred’s role has shifted higher and higher up the pitch since he first arrived, and he’s now become an attacking influence for the Red Devils. I can see you scoffing at this as you read it, and your mindset is exactly the same as the opposition teams who have failed to adequately stop his runs forward in recent weeks.Embed from Getty Images
When Fred ventures forward or roams into space higher up the pitch, it’s almost as though opposition teams think “Oh, it’s just Fred. Not to worry.”. Then he does something magical like his beauty strike against Crystal Palace, or a killer final pass for someone else to slot home, as seen against Arsenal. With one goal and one assist in the last two matches, Fred could only grow in attacking influence under the press-heavy Ralf Rangnick. If he can continue this kind of form, opposition teams will have no choice but to start to think of him as a dangerous player. In breaking it down further, Fred’s runs from deep have become increasingly intelligent and the respect of his teammates has followed.Embed from Getty Images
He can sometimes be overzealous in stepping up to press, but he rarely ever mistimes runs forward when his teammates have the ball. He coordinates nicely with Scott McTominay about when to push forward and when to sit, and both may even go up together against low-blocks. He’ll often roam toward the top of the box when the ball is on the right side of the field, as seen with his goal against Palace. Then when the ball is on the left (which United usually prefer), Fred will look to combine in the wide areas and even make his way into the box when the time is right, as seen against Arsenal. He frequently underlaps his winger, or may even hold a true central position if Luke Shaw is underlapping instead. With Fred, Bruno, Shaw and a left winger like Sancho operating in close proximity, United are often able to take advantage of the left-side of the pitch and work their magic. Given that the other three mentioned are more magical attack-minded players, Fred again is the one underestimated as he seeks out space. As opposition teams become attracted to Bruno or Ronaldo, little Fred pops up out of nowhere and creates an additional headache. That’s only aided in his desire to be more progressive this season. Only Pogba and and Bruno have made more passes into the final third, and only Shaw, Pogba and Bruno have made more progressive passes than Fred. He’s not the most elegant or the most successful, but he never lets that bother him. Instead of playing it safe, he isn’t afraid to play a risky pass, and now he’s starting to contribute to that side of the game in a way similar enough to the very best in the position.
PRESSING & DEFENSIVE PRESENCEEmbed from Getty Images
The calls for a new defensive midfielder at United have been primarily down to United’s slow reactions in transition, and their lack of progressiveness from midfield areas. As discussed in the last section, Fred is actually more progressive than many think, and he’s no longer just playing it safe. But the other critique of United’s midfield, that they are slow in transition, is also a bit of a myth. Fred is the most active presser at the club, both in attempted pressures and successful ones. Of the two United midfielders, the Brazilian is the one more capable and willing to step out and help lead United’s press from the front, even on his own omission. He’s applied 33 pressures in the attacking third this season, compared to McTominay’s 10. When you look at the other best defensive midfielders in the league, it’s highly comparable. Jorginho’s made 36, Rodri’s applied 31, and Fabinho, in fewer matches, sits at 26. The difference between Fred and the aforementioned three, is that the 28-year-old is one of United’s most important players when it comes to pressing from the front. Chelsea, City and Liverpool all have a myriad of other stars capable of leading their press. United only have Bruno and Rashford, the latter of whom has only come back into the fold in recent weeks. The other main difference is that United began to press less and less under Solskjaer, and Fred was often the one leading the charge and shouting “I’m going to do this all on my own.” That’s commitment, leadership and positivity through and through; three words many fans would not use when it comes to Fred.Embed from Getty Images
The Brazilian is not only active in stepping up in his team’s attacking third, but also the middle third of the pitch, where United are more likely to up their mid-block and stop the opposition in their tracks. While it’s partially a function of his team’s lack of pressing from the “front”, Fred blows the other midfielders out of the water when it comes to pressing in the middle third of the pitch. His 154 pressures is drastically more than Jorginho (100), Rodri (95) and Fabinho (90). You have to go to Hojbjerg at Tottenham (137) to find a more comparable top level defensive midfielder, which again showcases why Fred is so important to the Red Devils.Embed from Getty Images
Questions will always be asked of his mobility to get around the pitch and lead a midfield alongside Pogba all on his own, but the stats suggest he’s more than capable. It’s not terribly impressive that he’s been dribbled past more times than tackles he’s made this season, but you can understand why it’s happened so many times in a Manchester United team which became so press-resistant under Solskjaer this season. Beyond that, you can feel his passion with every kick of the ball, every pressure, and every argument with the referee. He wants to make himself a nuisance on the football pitch, and he’s not afraid of doing the hard stuff.
When it comes to his defensive presence, having another defensively minded midfielder alongside him in Scott McTominay has been of massive benefit to his role. But when you look at the numbers behind what he does on a football pitch, it’s clear that Fred is actually more of a complete midfielder than he’s made out to be. When you consider that he’s now been a staple of the midfield for three seasons running, the experience and chemistry that he’s developed with McTominay is undeniable, and something that needs to be commended all on its own.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
When it comes to Manchester United’s midfield men, it is possible that better options might exist. But that doesn’t mean Fred and Scott McTominay have not done a great job the past three seasons to anchor United’s midfield down and create occasional moments of magic themselves. Fred in particular is one that seems to grow in confidence with each and every game, remaining the team’s most active presser, and an increasingly key cog in attack. He should only grow in a press-heavy Ralf Rangnick team, and could be on his way to becoming one of United’s most important players, if he isn’t there already.
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