Is Manchester United the right team for Fred? What next for the Brazilian midfielder?

Manchester United secured the signing of Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, known as Fred, from Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk in June of last year for a reported fee of £47 million. The Brazilian, 26, had also been the subject of interest from rivals Manchester City, after impressing in the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League. Fred, who missed the beginning of United’s current pre-season tour, faces a battle for a place at the club, who are also reportedly seeking reinforcements in midfield.

He has yet to convince United supporters of his worth, having been unable to produce his best for the team on a regular basis. He has also made a number of errors that have directly led to conceded goals, further reducing his standing among United fans. This patchy form at the club has also resulted in him being in and out of the Brazilian national team, something which he would no doubt like to correct.

United were able to secure Fred’s signature ahead of local rivals City, having also done the same for the disappointing Alexis Sánchez a few months earlier. Questions were then raised over whether he would suit then-manager José Mourinho’s preferred style of play, as it was believed that his energetic displays in midfield, combined with his ability to win back and progress the ball, is what attracted the attention of City manager Pep Guardiola.

These two signings also caused concern among United fans, who begun to believe that the club were signing players simply to spite their rivals as opposed to recruiting players who are suited to and would improve the first team. Many believe that Sánchez and Fred were not Mourinho’s preferred additions to the team at the time they were purchased. Mourinho was later dismissed by United after a disastrous start to the 2018/19 season, leaving Fred having to fight for a place under a new manager while still relatively new to the club, all the while trying to adapt to a league which is probably the most demanding on the planet.

These struggles have inevitably led to him being linked with a move away from the club, perhaps to reunite with his former Shakhtar manager Paulo Fonseca, at his new club AS Roma. At a glance, a transfer seems unlikely, given Roma’s recent purchase of Guinean midfielder Amadou Diawara, as well as the size of the fee United paid for Fred. In recent times, the club has expressed a desire to recoup their outlays whenever they’ve looked to sell players, probably pricing I Giallorossi out of a move.

United have obtained fees nearly equal to what was paid for the likes of Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin, while they are also looking for something similar with regards to current players Matteo Darmian and Romelu Lukaku. While Fred himself has not made any statement about his future, a transfer to Italy would probably suit him, given the higher success rate of Brazilian players in Serie A when compared to the Premier League.

The size of the fee paid for Fred naturally led to increased expectation from supporters, who have so far been disappointed. He has also been used in different roles in midfield, something which has made it a little more difficult for him to adapt to the Premier League. His skillset makes him most suited to being the playmaking half of a double pivot in midfield, most likely in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as United have used so far in pre-season.

Coincidentally, this is also the role Fred occupied at Shakhtar, where he was often deployed alongside a specialist defensive midfielder, usually Ukrainian Taras Stepanenko. Fred was tasked with using his energy to get himself about the pitch and win the ball back for his team, before progressing it forward, while Stepanenko focused on subduing the opposition playmaker. This, in turn, gave more freedom to Shakhtar’s army of attacking midfielders, which included the likes of Alex Teixeira, Brazil international Taison, Brazil-born Ukrainian international Marlos, as well as Everton’s Bernard.

These players thrived operating behind a lone striker, as they were allowed to take up more advanced positions to support him, often being played in by Fred after he had hunted down possession. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used this formation to great success last season as the freedom afforded to Paul Pogba by the deep-lying midfield duo of Nemanja Matić and the now-departed Ander Herrera led to the Frenchman’s most productive season in attack and eventual inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year.

Fred has also been used by Solskjaer as the deep-lying midfielder, most notably in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final tie against FC Barcelona. Fred and Scott McTominay, who was deployed further forward on that occasion, performed well on the evening, despite United suffering a 1-0 defeat. United played that game without a recognised defensive midfielder and it was no surprise that Fred relied heavily on assistance from midfield cohorts McTominay and Pogba when it came to trying to stop Barça’s attacks or in resisting their attempts to press him into giving away possession.

This is one of the weaker areas of his game that has been exploited by the opposition during his time in England. Notable instances of this are when he dived in on Alexandre Lacazette to give away a penalty against Arsenal in the league and when he slipped and lost possession while under pressure in the FA Cup against Wolverhampton Wanderers, allowing them to score. Both of these games resulted in United defeats, lowering his standing among supporters.

Fred, however, should be focusing on the coming season, with United hoping to have a much-improved defence, perhaps even with defenders more capable of playing the ball out from the back themselves. This would reduce the workload of the deep-lying midfielder and could even render the playmaking half of the role obsolete. Should this be the case, United could deploy Matić as the deepest midfielder and give him the primary responsibility of breaking down opposition attacks and merely recycling possession to his teammates.

Fred could still be of use to United further forward if this were the approach Solskjaer were to prefer. His energy and ball-winning abilities make him an ideal candidate for a box-to-box role in a 4-3-3 formation although Fred’s own lack of goals and assists, when combined with Paul Pogba’s often lacklustre defending, creates an imbalance within midfield. This is likely why Solskjær opted for the aforementioned 4-2-3-1, which resulted in a more balanced team as well as a more productive Pogba.

The onus is of course on the manager to make the correct selection and approach based on the players he has available, as well as the level of quality of the opposition. Fred could also form part of special tactical plans concocted by United’s coaching staff, based on the information they’ve collected pertaining to the opposition. The number of options available to Solskjaer may also increase, as United are seemingly on the hunt for another midfield player.

Whether it is another defensive midfielder or a more creative one remains to be seen. Injuries have also previously limited Solskjaer’s options. Matić, who is the only specialist defensive midfielder in United’s first team, suffered injuries that had him sidelined for some of the more definitive periods of the 2018/19 season. It’s clear to see that Fred, along with compatriot Andreas Pereira and youth team graduates McTominay and James Garner, will have a role to play for United this season, particularly during periods of injury or suspension for regulars Pogba and Matić.

In concluding, it is worth noting that even the best foreign players in the Premier League all took some time to get used to the pace and intensity of the league. That being said, United fans are right to worry that Fred may go the way of Kléberson, a key member of Brazil’s World Cupwinning squad in 2002, who afterwards had a less than impressive tenure at Old Trafford. Kléberson’s former teammate Solskjaer will be hoping Fred comes good this season, and he certainly won’t be alone.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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