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An obituary to the McFred partnership

There when needed, but needed more…

Manchester United v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

News broke on Thursday that Fred would be leaving Manchester United to sign with Turkish club Fenerbache. And with that, the “McFred” partnership is no more.

The “McFred” midfield partnership was already dead - the pair started just three matches together last year and their last Premier League start came 37 matches ago - but this puts the final nail in the coffin.

There were many narratives around the McFred partnership. Most were often exaggerated and none ever told the full story.

They were a pair full of contradictions. They were the safe and dependable pair, but couldn’t be depended on to beat simple teams. They were the “more defensive pair,” but the team was worse defensively when they played. They were the preferred pair, but weren’t actually preferred.

There’s a saying “the best ability is availability.” The reality is what made Scott McTominay and Fred United’s most selected midfield pair over the last four years is simply, they were the most available.

It’s a cruel twist of irony that when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed them most - the 2021 Europa League Final - the pair was not available.

It never seemed like McFred would ever become a thing. They made their first start together in January 2019, playing in a three man midfield along with Andreas Pereira, against Reading in the third round of the FA Cup. Fred only made it 60 minutes before being subbed off, but McTominay would see himself get demoted to the U23s before making another start for the first team.

Injuries brought them back to the fold when they again started in a midfield three against Crystal Palace. It was a week later when they started their first game as a pair, away to PSG in the Champions League.

That match may was a highlight win for United. Both McTominay and Fred put in great performances that night, but the 4-4-2 low block defend at all costs performance didn’t have anyone thinking was a partnership for the future. That summer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was looking for help in midfield.

By the end of the season, the future couldn’t have looked different for both players. Fred was a £52 million signing that no one knew anything about. There were some quotes that he was brought in to replace the retired Michael Carrick, which was laughable. There were reports that he was the one who was supposed to ‘unlock Paul Pogba’ which suggests whoever said that had never actually seen Fred play. You shouldn’t write players off after just one season at a club, but Fred was testing that rule. His future couldn’t have looked bleaker.

McTominay was the complete opposite. He was the young academy graduate. Standing at six feet four inches he was big, physical; he looked like a defensive midfielder. With Nemanja Matic aging, McTominay looked like the natural replacement. Could he do it? It didn’t matter. He was young, he could be molded into that player. The decision to line him up next to Paul Pogba to start the 2019-20 season was unanimously met with cheers.

It took 11 games and injuries to Pogba and Matic before McFred would start their first match of the season, a 1-0 loss to Newcastle. It was a horrific performance remembered by the two midfielders making lateral pass after lateral pass.

With only the lowest expectations in their next game, United gave Liverpool their first blemish of the season. They followed that up with wins against Partizan in the Europa League, Norwich City, and knocked Chelsea out of the League Cup at Stamford Bridge. Then they went to Bournemouth and lost.

In December they powered United to wins over Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and Pep Guardiola’s City in the span of three days. Then United drew at home to Everton and lost to Watford.

That was the theme with McFred. One step forward, two steps back. Good in the big games when their role was simplified and United played a lot without the ball. Not good enough in the games where United had the ball and needed to take the game to their opponent.

McTominay’s injury on Boxing Day of 2019 essentially killed off the partnership. They had started only 10 Premier League matches together and would only start would only start one more - the first game of Project Restart. The partnership lasted about an hour that day.

That summer United rolled out the red carpet for Jude Bellingham but ultimately failed in pursuing him to come to Old Trafford. The COVID pandemic left the club short of funds to bolster the midfield.

The season started with Solskjaer committed to a Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba partnership until United suffered a 6-1 humiliation from Tottenham. They started the next four league matches as well as United’s return to Parc de Prince in the Champions League - another thrilling win.

It was the win against PSG and the subsequent 0-0 draw against Chelsea that highlighted their strengths and limitations. They shined against PSG when they were tasked with playing mostly off the ball, and didn’t need their passing to be perfect. They struggled against Chelsea when Frank Lampard let them have the ball.

Solskjaer never fully settled on McFred as his top pair. The rest of the fall he’d often alternate between McFred and Pogba and Matic each match. It was only the winter and spring, when Pogba started to play more on the left wing, that McFred started to play more.

Once again in the summer Solskjaer went hard for a new midfielder. This time Eduardo Camavinga. Once again United failed to land him and were left with the same four in midfield.

McFred had the reputation of being Solskjaer’s first choice pair even though they started just 61 of the 168 matches Solskjaer was in charge, a little more than a third. From the start of the 2019-20 season until Solskjaer was sacked they started 36 of the 90 Premier League matches. United won less than half.

All in all from the start of the 2019-20 season until now McFred have started 48 Premier League matches and United have won just 23 of them. Correlation doesn’t automatically equal causation but being poor in midfield - unable to protect your defense or get the ball to your attackers - can quickly bring the rest of the team down. Additionally those numbers also don’t take into account game states changing after substitutions, nor who the opponent was.

McFred often being the point of call in the tough games should be noted. They started 15 matches against the top six and United won five of those. But those were also the matches that suit the skillset of the partnership. The pair’s failure was against everyone else. In 33 starts against non-top six teams clubs United only won 19 - less than three of every five - which is simply not good enough. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes didn’t change much for the pair, rather the biggest impact one player had was when Paul Pogba would start alongside the pair on the left wing.

Those non-top six numbers without Pogba are rough, but fall in line with the limitations we know this partnership has. Neither are good in the first phase of play, making it difficult for United to play out the back and move the ball forward to their attackers. This often lead to Bruno Fernandes dropping deeper to find the ball, taking him out of the more dangerous areas United needed him to be in.

Defensively Fred was a ball winner who stepped up and engaged in a lot of duels whereas McTominay had a propensity to follow the ball and easily be dragged out of position. Together that meant one was often hanging the other out to dry and hurting United’s defense.

Even in their best season (2020-21) United were hardly better with them than without them. Taking out the matches against the top six, their numbers look respectable thanks to being on the pitch for a blowout against Leeds and playing against 10 men Southampton.

Neither player is to blame for this situation. Each player gave their all every time they stepped on the pitch and neither complained. Both are - at best - squad players who could complement better players in certain situations. Unfortunately those situations don’t come up often enough to be useful to a club that wants to be where Manchester United want to be.

Instead, they were forced to play together and the numbers of games they played together grew due to the inability of Pogba and Matic to stay fit. Furthermore the fact that neither Pogba and Fred nor Matic and McTominay could play together limited the amount of combinations United had and cast a brighter spotlight on the pair’s biggest trait; availability.

All of that is a reflection of the leadership at Old Trafford. Season after season failed to land top choice targets in midfield or sanction moves for secondary targets. Season after season they deemed McFred and two injury prone midfielders enough.

It was only when two midfielders finally left that United would finally bring in new midfielders. With more reliability and more options in terms of partnerships, there was only one game where Erik Ten Hag had to start McFred - and it was the only game he did.

Fred made more starts and played more minutes than McTominay last season - despite McTominay starting six of United’s first seven league games - but Fred is the one to go because that’s where the concrete interest was, and the player himself actively sought a move.

Whether it’s fair or not, both players will be remembered in conjunction with the other. Perhaps both could have had better careers if they were utilized differently but the timing of their United careers just didn’t work out.

United are better now that they’ve moved past the McFred era. Their limitations are just far too much for a team at United’s level.

McFred made it this far because they were there. No manager wanted them to their primary partnership, but when push came to shove there they were. The two midfielders who were almost always available. And for that, they’ll always be linked.