This is Part II of a deep dive into Manchester United midfielder Fred, be sure to check out Part I first.
Manchester United rarely do Fred any favors. You already got a glimpse of that above on the goal they conceded against Leicester. Fred makes a terrible back pass but United set him up for failure by giving him the ball with no options for what to do once he has it. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are both covered, while Alex Telles is all the way wide and a pass out there would surely be intercepted. This wasn’t a one off thing either. It happened plenty of other times as well.
The blame for the failings of the team typically get placed on Fred because it’s usually easiest to blame him. Yes, Fred could have (and in my opinion should have) stopped the Everton goal with a tactical foul on Gray, but he shouldn’t get all the blame when United still had men back, and were extremely lazy getting out of their own box after the corner kick.
What United do do well is hide Fred’s lack of height on aerial balls. Watch closely on a long goal kick and you’ll often see Fred switch places with Maguire to allow Maguire to contest the aerial ball and the two switch back afterwards.
Other than that though, the reality is United do a lousy job of putting him a position to consistently succeed, either with their structure or with personnel.
Fred makes up one half of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s “McFred” pivot. The pair are essentially first choice not because they’re particularly good but because they provide energy in midfield and not only can be trusted to do that multiple times a week but to also stay fit in the process. As a pair though they’re bang on average and considering that the midfield is the engine room of your team, it’s not exactly a surprise that United are wildly inconsistent when the two of them play.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season McTominay and Fred have started 35 Premier League matches together in the pivot (I don’t count 2019-20 Arsenal at home here because United were kind of in a diamond formation, which helps their cause here). United have won just 17 of those matches (48.57%). To be blunt, that is just not good enough; and while there are various different excuses that can be thrown out - they played games before Bruno Fernandes arrived, they play the more difficult games etc - even when you splice it up to account for those factors they still hover around the 50 percent mark. The only real impact a specific player makes seems to be whether or not Paul Pogba is starting on the left wing when they play.
Despite being labelled as a ‘defensive midfield’ duo, the pair isn’t particularly great defensively. That’s not a surprise considering that their skill sets don’t exactly complement each other.
Stripping out the matches against the top six (to make it fair), last season United conceded an average of 10.3 successful open play box entries per match (whether it be a cross, pass, or carry into the box). In the matches started by McFred, they averaged 11. Higher, but nothing particularly noteworthy.
This season though, United have only played against non top six clubs and they’ve had the lions share of possession in all but one of them (Leeds). Despite averaging 60 percent of the possession United are conceding 13 successful box entires per game in the four matches started by McFred! In the other three matches they’ve also averaged 60 percent of possession but have only conceded 4.33 successful box entries per match! That’s quite the drop off.
Neither Fred nor McTominay would best be described as “a sitter.” Both players have a tendency - albeit in different ways - to get drawn out of their respective positions when looking to get involved in more tackles and interceptions.
Sometimes you’ll see McTominay come all the way over on to Fred’s side of the pitch, and if United don’t win the ball there that results in your opponent having a free run at your back four.
Other times McTominay gambles on his own side of the pitch, and if he doesn’t win the ball there he’s leaving Fred isolated in the middle of the field. Since Fred isn’t a big physical midfielder, he’s not going to win that battle and you’re essentially letting your opponent have a free run at your back line.
For Fred, his bigger strengths (pressures + winning ground duels) becomes a weakness here. Remember earlier when I said Fred has very good positioning? He does, at least at the start of a sequence. Fred takes up good positions but his ability to win the ball back or at the very least cause disruptions leads to him very easily and eagerly getting drawn forward to try and win the ball back further up the pitch. This is great for breaking up counter attacks, and sometimes you don’t necessarily need to win the ball back but do enough to hold up the counter attack so your team can get back.
Fred typically has an extremely high number of players who have dribbled past him because he engages in so many 1v1 duels. This is all well and good if you have a midfielder in position behind you who can deal with the attacker if he gets by you.
That’s a big if because McTominay isn’t great positionally and often isn’t there if Fred gets beat. Meanwhile the likes of Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek aren’t typically in the right position to begin with and even if they are, they’re not great tacklers just the general defensive aspect of things. Except for Nemanja Matic.
What Matic lacks in pace he makes up for in the ability to read the game and positioning, which allows his game to complement Fred’s perfectly. Out of possession Fred is able to push up the pitch to break up counter attacks, win the ball back, and be a general nuisance. If he fails, he’s got his partner behind him who can step in and delay things long enough for the rest of the team to get back into shape. Fred enjoyed the same type of partnership at the Copa America with Brazil when playing next to Casemiro, which is why he was an integral part in their run to the final.
This dynamic makes Matic and Fred United’s best defensive midfield pair by far.
The two got blown up a few times in their early days (Arsenal and Liverpool away in Jan 2020) but were the pair that held Pep’s City to just seven shots for an xG of 0.6 in the Manchester Derby just before lockdown. Most recently they started together against Southampton, by far United’s best defensive performance of the season, where they held the Saints to seven shots and 0.55 xG before Fred was taken off.
The Southampton match was a great example of seeing both sides of the coin. Whereas Matic hides Fred’s defensive deficiencies, he greatly exposes Fred’s issues in possession.
Fred doesn’t like to have the ball at his feet and when on the pitch with Matic, he’s going to have the ball at his feet a lot. Matic likes to drop back into the defensive line, essentially clearing the way for his midfield partner to run the show. This helps someone like Paul Pogba thrive, but with Fred it just gives him the ball with loads of time and space as opponents tend to sit off him and focus on United’s attackers. This forces Fred to pick out passes, which highlights one of his weaker areas.
Fred likes to win it and quickly move it, but when he plays with Matic he’s forced to be the more expansive of United’s midfielders. Just look at his pass map against Southampton, this is far too expansive for what Fred can do!
This is something that carries over to the McFred pivot as well. Even when we strip out the matches against the top six, just look at the difference in how many touches Fred is getting compared to McTominay, as well as how many passes their teammates target each of them with.
Over the last three years, Fred has been targeted about 13 times more often than McTominay and is touching the ball nearly 20 times more. Just like with Matic, Fred is the one being charged with dictating United’s play in midfield. This isn’t a strength of his and asking him to do it week after week is essentially setting him up for failure.
Fred’s targets did come down last year and have dropped even further this season to the point where he’s nearly even with McTominay. Considering McTominay’s consistency in this area it doesn’t appear that United are fixing this issue, rather they’ve simply been trying to bypass the midfield altogether!
The Southampton match really was the best summation of Fred you’ll ever see. Fred was doing all the off the ball things and the little things really well, which prevented Southampton from ever getting a foothold in the match. But on the other side United lacked any impetus going forward. Since Fred was the one having to play beyond his means and make the expansive passes, he missed on a lot of them, 13 to be exact.
Combine that with bad luck finding him (the own goal) and it looked like Fred was having a really poor game, thus it was Fred who was withdrawn with 15 minutes to go. But when Fred came off, United lost all the off the ball things that Fred was giving them, and they completely lost their foothold on the game. United had 65.9 percent of the possession and were outshooting Southampton 14-7 before Fred was withdrawn. That fell to 53.3 percent over the final 15 minutes. Ole solved the problem of taking off the guy who kept giving the ball away, but created a new problem of not having a guy doing all that work in midfield to even have the ball in the first place.
Manchester United needed to sign a defensive midfielder this summer for a variety of reasons. Many believed it was simply to allow Paul Pogba to play better in the pivot while also allowing Donny van de Beek to play there too. With United fans wishing to add a defensive midfielder so they could switch to a 4-3-3 the ultimate bonus was that would mean no more Fred.
That’s not exactly true. Adding a defensive midfielder would likely not have meant the end of Fred, but would have simply meant a much better Fred. The match against Villarreal showed us what many already knew, a 4-3-3 with Pogba and Bruno as the 8’s is never going to work.
Fred has shown to be someone that thrives in a three man midfield. He needs that more positionally sound defensive midfielder behind him so he can go and be a ball winner higher up the pitch, but in possession he needs that attacker to be there with him all progression duties don’t fall square on his shoulders. Fred would thrive in the 4-3-3 that was deployed when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first took charge, and it should be remembered that he actually started in place of Ander Herrera in Solskjaer’s second game in charge. But that Fred was lost having a poor season and was yanked after 53 minutes. Put the current version of Fred in that team and things might look a little different.
Ultimately Fred is a high end squad player. He’s not going to help you against the deepest of blocks but he’s someone who should be playing in more games than not. The trick is you just have to cover his weaknesses. If you don’t his weaknesses can make him a huge liability and a lightning rod for everyone’s criticism. The things that Fred brings to the table has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turning to him more often than not. However, United’s failure to address the massive black hole in the middle of the park has ensured that they’ll be going another season failing to complement his strengths and magnifying his weaknesses. That’s only going to result in Fred continuing to get blamed for anything and everything.