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Manchester United Tactical Review: Let’s talk about Fred baby

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The oft-criticized midfielder is finally coming good

Manchester United v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Manchester United rolling past Brighton & Hove Albion 3-1 on Sunday shouldn’t have been shocking to anyone. This was exactly the kind of game that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United thrive in.

Brighton don’t sit back; they like to have a go at teams. They ended up with 56% possession which is perfect for a United team that likes to hit teams on the break. Any worry that United would struggle against Brighton because the Reds couldn’t beat Newcastle or Bournemouth was therefore naive. Similarly, this game does nothing to assure us that United will be better off the next time they face a team that defends in a low block.

United still crave that playmaker that can pick teams apart, and while they aren’t allowed to sign one until the next transfer window, it is the coach’s job to make the players he has better. Throughout this up and down campaign, among the criticism that many fans have had of Solskjaer is that he hasn’t made any of his players better.

Those people have not been paying attention to Fred.

It was never going to be easy for Fred. He was never going to live up to the expectations in his first season.

Considering that nobody, including possibly the senior officials at the club who signed him, had ever really seen him play, no one knew what to expect. Or what he even was for that matter.

When you see a £52 million price tag for a midfielder, you assume he’ll come with goals and assists. (A quick check of Fred’s final season at Shakhtar Donetsk where he had three goals and two assists should have told us right away he is not that guy.) At the time, José Mourinho was in a very public feud with Paul Pogba, and the tabloids saw Fred’s signing as a potential replacement. Later on in the season, Mourinho said he couldn’t play Fred because he doesn’t defend, which was comically untrue but only added to the idea that Fred was an attacking midfielder.

If we had just remembered that he was actually signed to replace Michael Carrick, perhaps the expectations could have been better managed.

Fred’s second season at Old Trafford couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. He missed most of the preseason because of his wedding. He planned his wedding for the middle of the summer because he assumed he’d be in Brazil’s Copa America squad, which is a big LOL moment considering he hardly played last year.

The lack of preseason meant Fred didn’t get his chance this year until Pogba’s injury. He came on as a sub against Leicester City and was great in shoring up the win. But a week later when he came on against West Ham he was again poor, with his outing being highlighted by him getting outmuscled by Jack Wilshere and committing the foul that led to the Hammers second goal.

That’s been the thing about Fred’s United career. Whenever there was something even marginally good, there was something else that was noticeably bad.

Fred’s next start came against Newcastle, which was the infamous lateral passing game, where Fred looked allergic to passing the ball forward. It was so bad that two weeks later, Solskjaer set the team up to bypass the midfield to start their attacks.

Nevertheless, Fred still got a chance to be all too eager to pass backwards.

It was after the Liverpool match where Solskjaer started talking about wanting the team to be bold on the ball.

Since that day, it’s almost like a light bulb has gone off inside the head of Fred. He’s not just been a different player, he’s been fantastic and getting better every game.

With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer determined to play a 4-2-3-1 this season, there were always questions about where Fred would fit in. Last season he primarily played in a three man midfield because there were always questions about his positional awareness. During the few preseason minutes he got this year, Fred did nothing to alleviate the fear that playing him in a midfield two would be a defensive risk.

Over the past few games Fred has displayed that he’s been paying attention to Solskjaer’s words about being bold on the ball, as well as working on his positional awareness. The Brighton match was a culmination of it all.

We’ll start with Fred’s basic ability to stay disciplined when defending, a change from what he did last year.

Watch Fred push up to mark his man — he doesn’t get there in time but he doesn’t overcommit or stay there either. Instead he just drops right back to get in line with Scott McTominay.

Then there’s Fred’s quick turn from defense to offense. A month ago this didn’t exist as part of his game. Against Brighton:

Fred wins the ball back, turns, and immediately plays the ball into space. Daniel James runs onto it and suddenly United are on the break.

Fred plays as the deepest United midfielder with McTominay actually playing more of a box-to-box number eight role. This makes Fred’s positioning of paramount importance. United’s press is designed for the front five, plus the full backs, to put the pressure on the opponents. They don’t necessarily need to win the ball back, they just need to make the opposition cough it or hoof it up.

As long as Fred is in the right position, the ball will end up coming right to him. This is why Paul Pogba has led the team in recoveries in each match he’s played this year, and why Fred has led them in the same category since he stepped in.

But it’s not about recovering the ball. It’s about what you do with it as soon as you get it. And that is exactly what we have here.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka puts on the pressure, the ball comes right to Fred, and Fred makes a quick forward pass to the breaking Anthony Martial. This leads to an early United break, which could have turned into something had Andreas Pereira not done... whatever it is this was.

The less we say about him the better.

Over the last few games Fred has looked wonderfully composed on the ball. He’s the embodiment of the way Solskjaer wants the team to play. Don’t always take the safe option, and don’t be afraid to pass to a teammate instead of hoofing it away to safety.

Like this play right here.

Fred steps in to intercept and essentially ends up trapped. He still manages to gain control of the ball and pick out Wan-Bissaka who can go back to Harry Maguire to clear the ball out of danger. Very well done.

With everything we’ve gone through already it’s no surprise that Solskjaer actually gave Fred an additional responsibility on Sunday: to help out youngster Brandon Williams, who was making his first league start.

In the first half, Fred was never too far away from Williams, always ready to spring in for a challenge if needed.

He was also there to make sure Williams knew where to be positionally. Just look at him early on yell at the youngster to tighten up and maintain United’s shape.

As Maguire moves the ball to the right side, Fred constantly waves Williams on. At one point he even turns to get closer to Williams in case he couldn’t hear him, before sprinting to get back into position.

Later in the first half when Neal Maupay took offense to Williams shoving him into the advertising boards, it was Fred who sprinted over to pull him away from the United teenager. Those are the kind leadership qualities for which McTominay has been garnering praise all year.

Later, Williams commits himself forward for a challenge that he doesn’t win, allowing Brighton to break down the wing. Who’s there to cover for him? You guessed it. Fred makes the challenge and feeds the ball to Maguire, but Maguire’s clearance is blocked. Eventually the ball comes to Williams whose clearance is also blocked.

The ball finds its way to Victor Lindelöf who calmly plays it to you know who: Fred. Does Fred turn and hoof it down field? No, he turns and plays a perfect ball right into the feet of Martial.

With one touch Martial finds Pereira and the break is on, culminating in the most Andreas Pereira goal of all goals.

Two stepovers, loses the ball, gets it back, shot takes a crazy deflection. I mean, come on.

Oh and that third goal? Do we even need to mention who played the Pogba-esque through ball that started the whole play?

It’s very hard to quantify midfielders with numbers. Everyone always looks back to goals and assists but the reality is that that’s not what midfielders are asked to do. There are other numbers that help show how influential a player is on a given day, but for Fred on Sunday, those numbers didn’t even begin to tell the story.

Only 0.56 in xGBuildup, just 0.03 xA, and ONE key pass? I’ve shown you more key passes than that in this post alone (okay - the pass to start the Pereira goal isn’t considered a key pass, which is ridiculous because that is the key pass in the whole sequence).

And there was another key pass that didn’t make it into the numbers. You know how United hadn’t scored on a set piece all year? That changed Sunday (sort of) and guess who was the one whipping the ball in.

Fred doesn’t get credit for a key pass here or the xGBuildup because it’s a set piece and it’s unclear whether that ball hits Maguire or the Brighton defender before finding its way to McTominay.

If we did give Fred the xGBuildup credit for that free kick, it would put his xGBuildup at 1.31 in the three games since the Liverpool match. That’s an xGBuildup per 90 of 0.44, higher than Pogba’s 0.36 which currently leads the team.

Last week Solskjaer said that since Fred was playing in Pogba’s position he was acting as a direct replacement for Pogba. That seems like a steep downgrade but the numbers suggest otherwise.

In the three games that United have played with Pogba and Anthony Martial this year, the team is averaging 14 shots a game (3.3 shots on target/gm). In the three games they’ve played with both Martial and Fred, that number jumps to 17 shots a game and 8.67 shots on target a game. Not exactly doing a bad job replacing Pogba eh?

Side note: Martial is the key here since his ability to play with his back to goal is a huge part of Fred’s game. Part of the reason the Newcastle and West Ham matches were such a disaster is because United didn’t have someone that could do that.

Does that mean Fred can take over for Pogba full time? Hell no. But it means that when the Frenchman returns, Solskjaer will have options.

Fred and McTominay have formed a formidable midfield pair. Solskjaer can keep them a pair and play Pogba in the number 10 role, or finally switch to a 4-3-3, giving Pogba a more free role in the midfield.

He can also do something else: drop McTominay. No, I’m not saying do this for every game. Against big clubs when you need a physical presence McSauce has to be the first name on the team sheet. But against teams that like to sit back, where McTominay’s slowness on the ball is a detriment, there’s no harm in letting Fred play and giving Pogba the box-to-box role.

Fred has earned that, and frankly that’s huge. His ascendence from £52 million afterthought to valuable player will play a big role in determining how far United can go this season.