What is Fred? That’s a question every Manchester United fan has been asking for three years now.
Fred is good at a lot of things. He’s also bad at a lot of things. There’s plenty of room in a team for a player who is good at the things Fred is good at. However, that also means you need other players in the squad who can compensate for the things that he’s not good at it. If you’re relying on Fred to do more than he can, you’re in for a long day.
When Fred does something good, it doesn’t seem to pop off the page or stand out in a match. But the things that he’s bad at — or when he makes a mistake — always seem to stand out and swing a match.
Take this scenario from last Thursday night against Roma. Fred gets the ball at the edge of the box with a man on his shoulder. He doesn’t have many options as to where to go with it especially given it’s on his weaker right foot. He could go back to Harry Maguire, but Maguire isn’t going to hoof it clear, he’s going to try to play out the back. In that case, might as well try to play out from the back yourself.
Fred back heels the ball away from the man quite well, but is immediately pressed and loses the ball on his second touch. Roma immediately turned and scored, leaving fans livid with Fred.
Not the worst idea, but not the best execution, and the ball’s stolen and it ends up in your net. These are the kind of mistakes that seem to always find Fred.
As a manager, what do you do when this happens? You can drop the player for his costly mistake in hopes of teaching him a lesson. You can leave him in the team in hopes that he’s learned from it and when in a similar scenario tries something else. There’s not really a right answer, every player and scenario are different.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer chose a different option. Three days later when United travelled to Villa Park he decided to run everything through... Fred?
United played the best football of their season during Project Restart last year. Tactically, when United were in possession Nemanja Matić would drop between the centerbacks to form a back three. Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka would push up to create a 3-2-5 formation.
This left Paul Pogba plenty of space in the middle of the park to act as a deep lying playmaker and Bruno Fernandes would have plenty of space in front of Pogba to be a creator.
Pogba was sensational in this role. He might have only finished with one goal and no assists but the space and freedom meant he didn’t need to do anything fancy but rather he was able to move around to create angles for simple passes to the creative players.
United haven’t been able to play this way this season because Matić’s lack of mobility has caught up to him big time while McTominay struggles to drop between the center backs. Occasionally, rather than splitting the centerbacks we’ve seen McTominay drop back as right centerback in a back three — the same position he plays for Scotland — but we don’t see it too often.
That’s mostly because McTominay typically plays next to Fred in the ‘McFred’ double pivot. When that happens the two tend to stay very much in line with each other, sometimes even on top of each other.
This causes a whole lot of problems in United’s buildup play, as the centerbacks tend to not have many options to pass forward and the full backs have to stay deeper to give them an option. McTominay and Fred struggle to get open.
McTominay’s and Fred’s passing ability is limited and many times when they do get the ball in buildup play, their only forward option is Bruno Fernandes. That’s typically not the easiest of passes due to the amount of bodies in midfield and thus they’re forced to either play square balls to each other, the fullbacks, or go backwards to the centerbacks. It’s too slow, and prevents United’s dangerous players from getting the ball in dangerous areas.
This then forces Bruno Fernandes to come out of the middle and drop deeper to get the ball. That gets him the ball but then you’re left without a creative player further up the pitch.
This entire season for Solskjaer has been about constantly adapting and evolving to cover United’s weaknesses and maximize their strengths. With Bruno having to drop deep, you needed another creative player forward. Enter Paul Pogba, who starts on the left wing but rarely stays there, giving United a presence in the middle.
Pogba doesn’t have to stay wide because Luke Shaw is more than capable of making runs down that left side to provide width.
This all works, but it still essentially only gives United one way of pushing up the field. Even if a direct pass to Pogba is open, McTominay is often reluctant to play dangerous passes and typically prefers the safe pass.
That’s a weakness to his game and while United’s coaches have been working with McTominay on his forward passing, it’s still not there yet. How do you hide that weakness in the meantime?
On Sunday, Solskjaer went back to having McTominay drop into the back three as the right centerback when United were in possession. Instead of being in the middle and being able to pass in any direction — with backwards being a safety net — McTominay is now already back and has the whole game in front of him.
This season McTominay averages 54.26 pass attempts per 90. Of those attempts, 64.03 percent are forwards. He averages 4.10 progressive passes per 90. On Sunday, with McTominay often dropping deep, 73.3 percent of his attempts were forwards and he made eight progressive passes. More importantly this also moved McTominay out of the middle, changing the passing angles he’s looking at, so he could make more forward passes. This allows him to go directly to Bruno early on.
Later, McTominay is able to play through the lines to Marcus Rashford dropping into space. Rashford gives it right back to him but McTominay once again plays it right back to him even though he isn’t as open.
When Rashford turns on the ball the second time United are able to quickly get the ball deep.
McTominay dropping into the back three allows the full backs to push higher up the pitch and provide width. It also opens up more space in the middle for players to ghost between the lines and receive passes.
Most importantly, dropping your midfielder into a back three leave your other midfielder with a lot more space to operate. During Project Restart it was a no-brainer to do this so that Pogba had space and freedom to do his thing. On Sunday that other midfielder was... Fred?
Right from the start Fred was operating as United’s deep lying playmaker, essentially the quarterback of their attack.
Even when the ball is at the top of the box, Fred is out there pulling the strings.
He was so full of confidence that he even put a shot on target from outside the box!
Fred was always hanging out right behind that attacking line. When he wins the ball back here United are in perfect position to keep attacking, with four men across the front, while Shaw and Fernandes provide creativity behind them.
When Fred wins the ball back it’s just a simple touch to get the ball to Bruno and keep the attack going.
That’s the beauty of this formation, it hides the weaknesses of McTominay and Fred (their passing) and puts them in a position to succeed by giving them more space and different angles — they can just focus on making quick simple passes to the creative players, and try something a bit more difficult every once in a while.
They’re still McTominay and Fred. Mistakes still manage to find them, like Fred giving McTominay a poor one touch pass and McTominay immediately getting caught on the ball. Victor Lindelöf manages to get a foot to the ball and given the body position and angle that Bertrand Traore found himself in, it should have been enough to quell the danger. Some shots are just ridiculously perfect.
These are the kind of mistakes that tend to find Fred, and when Fred makes a mistake, it tends to jump off the page.
The Villa goal aside, it’s hard to say that this plan wasn’t successful. Fred completed 95.7 percent of his passes (his season average is 88.4), he lead the team with 10 progressive passes (he averages 5.44 per 90) and an xG Buildup of 0.74. He had five shot-creating actions, only Luke Shaw had more. For a deep lying playmaker, that ain’t bad at all.
Most importantly, moving McTominay and Fred around allowed Solskjaer to play his most dynamic front four in the most dynamic way possible. Too often this season United’s forwards have been too stagnant. They stand around in their positions waiting for the ball and when the ball comes to them, that’s when they start to try and do something with it.
On Sunday, Pogba, Bruno, Rashford, and Greenwood didn’t so much have positions but rather, ‘starting positions.’ Four players who not only could play anywhere across the front four but were also on the same wavelength. They weren’t looking so much for the ball but rather for the space. They were looking for their teammate to make a run and then they’d make a run into the space they vacated. This meant the players could turn up anywhere, like Greenwood popping up on the left in the first half and almost meeting Rashford at the back post.
Combine this dynamic front four along with playing Fred as a deep lying playmaker and you essentially have the recipe for all of United’s goals.
On the first, Aaron Wan-Bissaka runs at his defender before pulling him back out wide to change the angle. At the same time, Mason Greenwood pulls himself out wide creating space in the box. Once Wan-Bissaka pulls up, Pogba makes a run into the space vacated by Greenwood and wins a penalty.
A few minutes later Pogba gives the ball to Fred who has acres of space in the middle of the pitch. With all that space he’s able to pick out Bruno drifting in between the lines who pushes out wide to Wan-Bissaka.
Wan-Bissaka again runs at the defender before pulling back to create an angle. At the same time, Bruno pops out to open up a passing lane for Wan-Bissaka into the box. Once Bruno drops back, Greenwood makes a run across the edge of the box and follows up that well timed run with an even better turn to receive the ball and finish at the near post.
The last goal puts it all together. It starts with McTominay back as the right centerback to cover for the advanced Wan-Bissaka. He gets the ball and is able to move it simply to Pogba in the middle of the pitch.
United get a couple chances that are blocked before the ball comes back out to Fred who was waiting at the edge of the box. He’s got Cavani over to his left, but Cavani isn’t a ‘cut inside from the left and shoot’ kind of striker. He’s great at making runs across goal, except right now, the ball and Cavani are on the same side of the goal.
So instead, Fred switches the play over to Rashford. As soon as that happens Cavani makes a run to the middle, and boom, another beautiful goal.
This wasn’t a dominant performance but it didn’t have to be. United never got out of second gear as a means of saving energy ahead of an absolutely brutal week. This was just another case of what has now become a typical United match. They play within themselves for the first 45 minutes before opening things up in the second half.
It’s work smarter not harder. If they went at teams right from the jump they’d wear themselves out. Instead they let teams try to take the game to them for the first 45 minutes, relying on their defense being tough to break. Even if they go 1-0 down, they know their opponent will wear themselves out and will be ripe for the picking in the second half.
They play within themselves for the opening 45 minutes and open things up in the second half. That’s how United have not only been able to kick into another gear during the run in, but how they’ve consistently ran teams off the pitch in the second half of matches this year despite nearly always having to play a midweek fixture while their opponents typically don’t.
Each week they add another wrinkle. Not so much doing something different, but simply adding another layer to their constantly evolving tactics. This week it was Fred playing as the deep lying playmaker.