During Fred’s early months in the Premier League, it would be fair to say many Manchester City fans will have felt their team had dodged a bullet.
Prior to his move to the red side of Manchester, speculation was rife that Pep Guardiola had identified Fred – at Shakhtar Donetsk back then – as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho in midfield.
Fred had made a reputation for himself as an effective box-to-box midfielder who could have an impact on the ball as well as off it.
But it was difficult to see what possessed Manchester United to pip City to his reported £55million signing during the 2018-19 season, as he struggled with the tempo of the game and didn’t appear to offer anything particularly outstanding to any part of the United unit.
However, as the past year or so – especially this season – highlights, Fred has become one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s most-trusted individuals.
As United welcome City to Old Trafford in Wednesday’s EFL Cup semi-final, Fred has another chance to show why that is the case.
Who gets your vote for the final #MUFC Player of the Month award of
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 30, 2020
Fred may have only started 10 of United’s 16 Premier League games this term, but a telling pattern emerges when you look at which matches they were.
Among those games, he was in Solskjaer’s line-up for outings against Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Southampton, City, Leeds United, Leicester City and Aston Villa.
All of those are, of course, either ‘big six’ rivals or teams pushing to be in the upper echelons of the Premier League this term. He was brought on at half-time in the 6-1 demolition by Tottenham, and while he hardly held Spurs at bay, they were at the very least less rampant in the second half.
It cannot be a coincidence that these are the type of matches Fred has been used in most often, with Solskjaer clearly valuing the midfielder’s off-the-ball qualities as United regularly look to absorb pressure and spring counter-attacks.
That will likely be the tactic again as United host EFL Cup holders City in Wednesday’s semi-final, a one-legged repeat of last season’s two-match tie in the same round.
A year on from the 2019-20 first leg, Solskjaer will be hoping for a rather different outcome, as City – opting to go with a false nine – overran United’s midfield and battered them at Old Trafford that day, deservedly winning 3-1.
There will likely be just four players from the United starting XI of the game a year ago who line up on Wednesday, with Fred one of them. The upheaval in the squad has been significant, but it’s telling that the Brazilian is one of those still playing a role, and an important one at that.
He may have let himself down again with a red card against Paris Saint-Germain, but it seems Solskjaer accepted responsibility over that incident.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 28, 2020
FRED THE FACILITATOR
It seems highly unlikely Fred will ever be in the running for any of the Premier League’s end-of-season individual awards – he doesn’t score or create enough, and you cannot say his influence is anything like that of N’Golo Kante in the title-winning Leicester City side.
But, one player who surely will be a candidate for individual gongs is Bruno Fernandes, and players like him need colleagues like Fred in order to thrive.
The Brazil international is well-rounded and has the technical ability to lend support in offensive situations, such as his neat interchanges with Paul Pogba against Aston Villa last time out.
But Fred is undoubtedly at his most effective when his side are not in possession, with his 49 tackles more than any other United or City midfielder in all competitions this term.
It’s a similar story with his interceptions count. Fred has made 30 in 2020-21, five more than Rodrigo, who ranks second among the United and City engine room players. That is despite Fred despite playing over 400 minutes less than City’s Spain international. Of course, City generally have more of the ball than United, but it still highlights Fred’s awareness.
Critics might point out his 12 key passes is a rather meagre total, but with Bruno Fernandes (69) creating chances with such frequency, one could argue it doesn’t matter – after all, Fred isn’t being put in the team to be a creator.
Curiously, in the league since January 1 last year, United actually have a worse win percentage (50) with Fred in the starting XI than they do without him (71.4), though this is clearly skewed by the fact he is often reserved for games against better opposition.
But what is notable from this time period is United concede fewer shots – 10.3 per game – on average when Fred starts. That goes up to 12.1 shots per 90 minutes when he’s not in the first XI – while the team’s own shots count increases from 12.4 to 15 each game with the Internacional youth product in the side.
Opta’s advanced passing data also reflects favourably on Fred, particularly with respect to starting three open-play sequences that ended in a goal, which is the joint second highest in the Premier League this term.
He has also initiated four open-play passing sequences that led to a shot, which only Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Fernandes can better in the Red Devils’ squad.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 13, 2020
UNNOTICED, UNDER-APPRECIATED, BUT NOT USELESS
Fred is perhaps the sort of player many would consider dispensable, and maybe he is in certain matches. Rarely does he stand out as an individual, certainly not to the extent of say Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, and much of his work can go unnoticed.
But many of us inadvertently analyse players in isolation and by their individual numbers, rather than how they fit into the collective. Sure, Fred doesn’t create many chances, but what he offers United off the ball is seemingly vital for Solskjaer.
Fred may not be the player a lot of United fans expected two and a half years ago, but he has certainly proven himself to be no dud.
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