When Manchester United signed Fred for £52 million, he seemed to be part of the plans for José Mourinho’s midfield centered around Paul Pogba.
Fred has seen his minutes increase this year, especially with Ander Herrera’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain and Pogba’s injury woes. He slots into the two holding midfielder spots in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1 that transforms into a 4-2-1-3 when United trail, which is more often than used to be the case.
In that defensive midfield role, Fred has had bright spots but in United’s 1-0 loss to Newcastle at St. James’ Park before the international break, he struggled to weave passes and position himself on a wet Sunday afternoon on Tyneside. Fred made 84 of his 95 passes (88 percent) but that’s generally thanks to his short and uncomplicated passes. The formation changed for United after Mason Greenwood came in but Fred’s role in the midfield did not change with it.
United miss Pogba dearly. Along with the Frenchman, the Red Devils were without Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard. Maybe a better creative midfielder than an aging Juan Mata takes some of the load off the Brazilian to create, but that will have to wait until January at best, or at least until Pogba can take his spot in the lineup again.
Composure has not been United’s strong suit this season, nor has it been Fred’s. Fred looks for the simple pass, oftentimes a square pass, which is needed at times to progress the ball. But the lack of risk-taking by pinging through balls to the front line hurts United and slows down the attack that has been lacking in potency this year.
Let’s take a look at Fred’s positioning when Newcastle had possession, which hasn’t been Fred’s biggest criticism though some of it is troubling.
Fred and Scott McTominay are caught too high and are in the same space. Miguel Almiron gets in behind them with one pass before he’s then fouled by Fred outside the top of the box.
It happens again just minutes later as Newcastle target Joelinton up top in the No. 9 role. He drops off the center backs to collect the ball and neither center back follows in order to keep their shape. This puts too much pressure on the United center backs to keep tabs on the space between themselves and the midfield. Once again, Fred and McTominay are occupying the same space … and Mata has joined them.
Now let’s take a look at the big issue: Fred on the ball.
He tends to only play the simple pass to the closest red shirt to him, preferably backward and away from danger. There’s an element of lack of risk taking when Fred has the ball and that’s taking the sting out of any attempt United make to break lines down in the attack. Harry Maguire and Axel Tuanzebe tended to be the players playing the cutting passes out of the center of the park against Newcastle.
Mata seems to notice this and drops deep to try help distribute the ball, but Newcastle’s staggered midfield makes it tough for the Spanish midfielder. Moments later, he surges into the space in between Marcus Rashford and the midfield and receives a pass from … Maguire. He’s fouled and United go backward.
Fred checks in to the throw and his only intention is to go backward with it. It’s an attempt to switch the field of play from the right to the left but it allows Newcastle to set for the attack as Maguire’s pass to Ashley Young is mishandled for a Newcastle throw in on the far side.
Occasionally, Fred will spray a pass across the field to switch play but United’s attack breaks down when Diogo Dalot and Daniel James aren’t on the same page about what to do next. This is positive, and rare, from Fred. United need more of this, and more of it over the back to find Marcus Rashford’s and James’s runs (think back to Rashford’s goal via Pogba’s long ball over the top against Chelsea on the first matchday of this season).
Fred can really open things up here. A pass out wide can free up the forwards or he can dart into the space behind Newcastle’s midfield to receive the return pass. A dribble to the right with Andreas Pereira or James checking in could cut through the Newcastle midfield as well. Instead, Fred goes backward to McTominay and United have to restart the phase of attack.
As United get on the counter attack, Fred, with options in front of him, plays the square pass to McTominay and allows Newcastle to get back and fend off the counter rather than play a forward pass to Young on the left, a checking in Mason Greenwood or a forward-motioning Perreira.
The lone goal of the game has little to do with Fred but should still get brought up here. To his credit, Fred tried to slow down the attack with a simple press on Allan Saint-Maximin (the right thing to do rather than dive in and take himself out of the play) but United’s overall positioning is all out of sorts and far too flat in the goal area with multiple defenders defending nothing. Clinical goal from Newcastle and Matthew Longstaff, sloppy transitional defending from United.
All in all, the problem is much bigger than Fred but there has to be a change in urgency of play and a more clear role for what Fred does because at the moment, all he does his pass the ball along as United move slowly into attack.