That was the question that nearly every Manchester United fan was (rightly) asking in the summer of 2018 when the club announced the £52 million signing of Brazilian midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk.
A quick google search would show you that besides the one good game he had against Manchester City in the Champions League, the Brazilian had scored four goals and added seven assists in 37 appearances in all competitions for the Ukrainian side in 2017-18. (11 goal contributions?? I’ve looked this up on multiple websites, I’ve watched multiple highlight videos of his time in the Ukraine. They’re all telling me the same thing but I still don’t believe it. Someone is lying to me. Either all the websites or my eyes.)
With limited access to stats, match footage, and not much else to go by in the summer of 2018 other than Tranfsermarkt formations, you wouldn’t be blamed for believing the ‘reports’ that United were signing a replacement for the just retired Michael Carrick who could also add something in the attacking end.
That is very much not what United were getting.
Naturally that begs the question, what exactly is Fred? You’ve come to the right place, strap in and let’s figure it out.
In simplest terms, Fred is a defensive minded number 8. But modern football is far more complicated that just labelling someone with a role that is associated with a shirt number and Fred is certainly on the more complicated end of the spectrum.
On one side, Fred ranges from being a useful asset to a team to being an incredibly important if not vital asset to a team depending on how you set up and use him. On the other side, Fred ranges from being a potential liability in the team to a major liability in the team depending on how you set up and use him.
Fred does a lot of things well. Really well. He also is not good in certain areas, and the things he isn’t good at, he’s really bad at. This is pretty common with footballers, especially midfielders, the key is to put them in a system that allows them to do what they do best while covering for their deficiencies. Chelsea’s Jorginho went from a player who was ‘finished’ and couldn’t play in the Premier League to the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year once he was put into a system that covered for his weaknesses.
United rarely do that with Fred.
Let’s start with the obvious. Fred is an elite ball winner. Over the last three seasons Fred leads United in Tackles Won (a tackle where your team wins possession of the ball) per 90, with no one being particularly close. In 2019-20 Fred’s 13.6 recoveries per 90 trailed only Nemanja Matic’s 13.7. Last season he lead the team with 11.7 and the 12.7 he’s currently getting this season has a substantial over the next highest, Matic, with 9.55.
Fred’s pressure numbers are simply outstanding for midfielder. FBref has him ranked in the 92nd and 94th percentile of all midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues in pressures and successful pressures respectively.
In general he’s just a complete nuisance to play against.
Fred’s biggest strength (and ironically one of his biggest weaknesses) is the ball seems to gravitate towards him. He ranks in the 91st percentile in tackles + interceptions per 90, but it’s his quick feet and quick instincts that really help him out. Fred ranks in the 97th percentile in total blocks and the 97th percentile in blocked passes. It’s what makes him a big asset in breaking up opposition counter attacks.
Once Fred wins the ball, his next strength comes into play. His ability to move the ball quickly.
United are a team that struggle to break down well organized teams. The whole purpose of pressing is to catch teams unorganized. Winning the ball high up the pitch doesn’t do anything if you don’t immediately move the ball before they reset.
Fred is incredibly good at this. As soon as possession is recovered he’s quickly looking to move the ball to the good players so United can go on the attack.
It’s not just hitting the ball into space and letting a United player run onto it. When the ball has just been turned over and things are chaotic, Fred is at his best, and his ability to move the ball quickly helps him play simple, but really effective line breaking passes that help United launch transitions.
He’s really good at doing this in the midst of crowded spaces.
And his ability to do this with just one touch makes him all the more more valuable.
In fact that’s really the key. I really believe the narrative around Fred would change a bit if we just started calling him “two-touch Fred.” When Fred takes two touches or less, he’s generally able to do really good things with it. Even when United already have possession and Fred gets the ball in space, if he’s taking less than two touches he can show off his passing range.
Get the ball and quickly move it to the good players is an attribute that, maybe surprisingly, found Fred sitting in the top 15 in the league in ‘expected threat added’ last season.
This highlights one of Fred’s more hidden skills. His ability to play the pass before the pass.
It won’t come as a surprise to you that last season Bruno Fernandes lead United in pre-assists with 16 in all competitions. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that Luke Shaw was second with seven. But tied with Shaw was Fred, contributing seven of his own. In 2019-20 Fred tied for the lead in the category with Bruno Fernandes (playing half a season) with five. This season only Shaw (3) and Mason Greenwood (3) have more than Fred (2).
All of this stem’s from Fred’s positional sense and IQ. This is different than his positional discipline (which we’ll get to). Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s system is based on allowing players to move around freely with the ball to create new angles and play to their strengths. But in order for that to work, you need players to cover positions when their teammates make runs forward. Fred is excellent at this.
Just look here at how he takes up a defensive midfield position when the ball is moved out wide to Shaw, but when Shaw starts to tuck inside, Fred moves back out wide to cover for Shaw the left back who has now become Shaw the midfielder.
Therefore if something happens and things start going the other way, Fred is covering at left back where he can continue to do Fred things. Like win the ball back, and move it quickly.
Often times in transition the fullback will get bypassed pretty easily which draws the centerback out wide. When that happens, you can always count on Fred to fall into the centerback’s spot to maintain United’s back four.
This has been especially crucial this season when United have played with Paul Pogba on the left wing, but as more of a left central midfielder, whom United want to play more narrow and not be defending wingers. That’s forced Luke Shaw to step up on the wide players, and Harry Maguire to provide more coverage out there.
Fred then falls in to United’s back line to keep their shape.
Fred’s positioning is a major factor in his game that can’t be measured. How many times do things ‘not happen’ because a player is in good position? Defending isn’t just about being on the ball. A step or two in the right direction can prevent a pass from being played to a dangerous player and lead to a harmless pass out wide. It happens hundreds of times a game and it only sometimes gets noticed if that good defender is suddenly missing from the team (if at all).
Just take this example. Fred gives the ball away (taking more than two touches!) which causes United’s defense to spread out and deal with an immediate threat. Holes and gaps are appearing everywhere, but Fred gets back to hold up the attacker long enough for United’s back four to recover and regain their shape.
Nothing comes of this attack but there’s also no way to measure what Fred did here. There’s no ‘defensive action’ made here. So much of defending is just ‘not letting the attacker do what they want to do’ and ‘delaying them long enough to let your teammates get back and organized.’ Fred does both perfectly here.
All of these things are very admirable traits that would make for a great midfielder. No one is perfect but these seem to be traits that you’d very much want in a midfielder so long as you can hide whatever his flaws are.
That’s what makes Fred so complicated. For most players, their flaws are just little things here or there that can be easily covered up. With Fred though his flaws can be very glaring.
Again we’ll start with the obvious. He can’t shoot. At all. Not only does he not get any power behind his “shots” but his inability to even simply hit the target is mind boggling.
Ultimately though, it’s not really a huge deal. There are plenty of midfielders that can’t shoot, the key is don’t put them into positions where you need them to shoot.
Fred is small, and while he’s shown to be very feisty and never shies away from a skirmish, he is not a physical presence in midfield. He gets bodied off the ball way too easily.
This obviously reared it’s ugly head against Everton when Fred was bodied off the ball by Demarai Gray leading to Everton’s equalizer.
It’s also pretty common to see him not being able to engage physically in the middle of the park, leading to people blowing right by him.
Part of this could also be United’s midfielders may be told to avoid making tactical fouls - something I don’t agree with. This could be something that goes back to Sir Alex Ferguson giving Solskjaer a rollicking after the player famously took a red card to stop Newcastle from scoring. “We don’t do that here” was the jist of what Ferguson told him. It’s not uncommon to see Fred, Scott McTominay, or Paul Pogba seemingly jumping out of the way of a challenge in midfield.
This avoidance of committing tactical fouls is even weirder when you factor in how many dumb fouls Fred and McTominay commit. The two rank in the 8th and 27th percentiles respectively for fouls committed, and if they’re not being committed in transition or the middle of the pitch, that leaves a lot coming right at the edge of United’s box. They seem to especially happen when a foul just doesn’t need to be committed.
There’s no hard data behind this but anyone will tell you it’s always the dumb and completely unnecessary fouls that end up in the back of your net.
Fred’s biggest problem is his strengths are in the subtle areas of the game, like positioning and preventing things from happening. His weaknesses are in the more active areas of the game, engaging in duels, being on the ball etc.
That shines a big ol spotlight onto his weaknesses and makes you remember the mistakes. A player taking up the wrong position during buildup may hurt the team’s chances of scoring, but it doesn’t get noticed if you just recycle possession among your back four. A player making a bad pass and giving the ball away, that gets noticed.
That happens to Fred pretty often because Fred doesn’t like to be on the ball. He wants to get it and move it quickly. Against deeper more organized teams, United need their midfielders to be assertive and patient on the ball. Take what the defense gives you.
When Fred wants to move it quickly, that could lead to him not recognizing that he’s got time and space and quickly passing backwards to keep possession, when he should be turning and looking forwards.
As I mentioned before, “two-touch Fred” is at his best when he can move it quickly. When he gets the ball in space he often has the right idea, but his ability to make the pass often lets him down.
So many of the things Fred can do can be classified as “right idea, wrong execution.”
Even when he makes good plays with the ball if he’s got it as his feet for too long things seem to go awry at the end.
Because Fred’s weaknesses are all in the more “active” areas, it creates the perception that all his mistakes seem to end up directly creating chances for the opposition.
Sometimes that’s direct,
and sometimes a more expansive pass is misplaced and even that ends up leading directly to a chance at the other end.
Fred also has to deal with his reputation. The fact that he was an unknown coming into the 2018-19 season and had a disastrous campaign gave him a label that he’s never been able to shed. It’s created a perception of him that becomes really hard to shake. When you play a match and do 90 subtle things really well, the one mistake is what is going to be remembered.
A couple misplaced passes becomes “Fred is always misplacing passes.” There’s some truth to that, Fred misplaces more passes than United’s other exclusively pivot midfielders (Matic and McTominay), but that’s also because he attempts more passes per 90 minutes than the other two and significantly more long passes. The reality is, he’s no less accurate with his passes than United’s other midfielders.
It’s just that when he misses a pass it either turns into a chance against United or he misses it in hilarious fashion so it gets remembered. It immediately gets giffed and Fred essentially becomes a meme.
Then when he does actual dumb but completely harmless things like this, it just adds to the “Fred is so useless” mythology.
Sometimes it seems like bad luck manages to always find Fred, such as blocking a shot against Southampton only to see it go in an own goal. The reality is that Fred’s ability and quickness create almost a magnet for bad luck, because he’s able to get into situations that most other players won’t.
Take the equalizer Everton scored above, if most midfielders started in the same spot as Fred, they wouldn’t even have gotten to the first challenge on Gray to lose it. Or here against Wolves where Fred is positioned very well to break up a transition, but when he breaks it up there’s no other United player around and Wolves are still on a break. Watch this at bar and everyone will be quick to blame Fred even though the breakdown occurred well before this.
Fred’s abilities make him a big asset to have in the team, their success is just going to come down to how well his flaws are hidden.
Unfortunately, Manchester United do a terrible job of that...
Check out Part II here.