Think about January 2020. It seems a while, but if you can stretch far enough to remember a time when fans were in stadiums, Bruno Fernandes was still sporting the green-and-white of a Portuguese outfit and the biggest thing Manchester United fans had to worry about was whether Jesse Lingard or Andreas Pereira were going to start on Saturday.
Not far behind Lingard and Pereira in the firing line was Fred. Bought from Ukrainian powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk for over £50 million in the summer of 2018, and quickly became the latest in the long list of United misses in the transfer windows since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson five years earlier.
Fast forward twelve months, and the Brazilian midfielder is one of United’s most un-droppable players. His work rate is impressive, he’s solid in the tackle and works imperviously in the middle, moving from box-to-box and helping in both defence and attack. So how did the one-time flop become one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s most reliable men?
Becoming a scapegoat
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest Fred was downright awful until 2020. In fact, he had a few really solid games for the Red Devils since his arrival, but the right place to footnote his first run at the club would be at Bruno Fernandes’ arrival in January 2020.
In fairness, he had a strong debut against Leicester City at Old Trafford, as United picked up a 2-1 win. He worked well with Paul Pogba and Pereira in a three-man midfield, and looked pretty good for his first introduction to English football.
But as the months progressed, it felt eerily as if United had only bought him in order to beat Manchester City to the signature, as, at one stage, he was targeted heavily by Pep Guardiola, who saw him as the ideal successor to Fernandinho. The comparison – judged on current ability – is fair. Fred is capable of sitting behind more creative midfielders like Pogba and Fernandes, and perhaps even Scott McTominay, and he is very adept at tactical fouls, an art that Fernandinho has perfected for City since Guardiola arrived four-and-a-half years ago.
Though United had been fairly strong in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first few months, Fred had been in-and-out of the first team. He, McTominay and Pereira were awful against Reading in the Third Round of the FA Cup, though United progressed, and his brief minutes for the first eleven were forgettable.
An injury crisis saw Fred shine in the Champions League Round of 16 away leg at PSG, where United completed an incredible turnaround from a two-goal deficit, alongside McTominay and Pereira again.
But for the rest of Solskjaer’s half-season in charge, he was poor. A summer that saw him wedded and rested was well-needed, as his performances began to improve in the early stages of the 2019-20 season. While the whole squad were poor in the Autumn, his showings against Tottenham Hotspur and previous suitors Man City were very solid in December, and the tide began to turn for Fred.
The arrival of Fernandes lifted the entire squad in January, Fred being no exception. His performances continued to improve with good performances against Chelsea and City, but the lockdown period again proved to be an obstacle. He would play for an hour against Spurs in the return from the break but struggle to get in the team again.
The ‘McFred’ pivot – and keeping Pogba out of the team
With the gap between 2019-20 and 2020-21 shortening due to the Covid-19 lockdown from March-June, there wasn’t as much time for the Reds to rest. But Fred continued to work out of the team and in it, and since United’s 6-1 defeat to Spurs in October (which could be seen as a turning point for the club this year), Fred has been a consistent member of the first eleven, linking up with Scott McTominay to become a strong midfield pairing, and giving Bruno Fernandes the space and ability to impart creativity on the game.
Fred isn’t the finished product yet. His attacking returns are inconsistent (he’s had just thirteen shots on target from 65 efforts), but defensively he is very good. He wins tackles, intercepts in the middle of the field and also forces those crucial tactical fouls, preventing counter-attacks which can be difficult for United to deal with – just three yellow cards from twenty fouls is a solid return. As mentioned, he works best alongside McTominay – the double pivot allows for coverage defensively and either of the midfielders to venture forward and help in attack while retaining some security at the back.
Until his recent form, Paul Pogba has been kept out of the team by Fred, and even now, it feels that Solskjaer has to shoehorn Pogba, not Fred, into the side, despite the former’s incredible recent stretch of games.
He wasn’t exceptional against Liverpool on Sunday, but he and McTominay nullified the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Georginio Wijnaldum, with only Thiago being a creative force for the champions during the North-West derby.
Perhaps not the most refined Manchester United midfielder, but he’s come a long way since former United men Owen Hargreaves and Michael Owen brandished him as ‘moderate’ around fourteen months ago.
"He's just a moderate player!"— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 3, 2019
"We were discussing what's his best position, six or eight? Then you think he can't do either role that well..."
A night to forget for Fred... pic.twitter.com/X3GxsmjgAD
There’s still a way to go for United if they have any chance at securing the Premier League title this season, but the performances of Fred and McTominay will be a huge factor if Solskjaer’s side are going to challenge for silverware in 2021.