Fred’s acquisition from Shakhtar Donetsk at first appeared to be a sign of a busy and successful summer transfer window at Manchester United, but it ended up being an anomaly. Amid much of the gloom at, it perhaps became easy to overlook his arrival along with Porto’s Diogo Dalot, a defender rated very highly by those at the club he left. Yet in his performance against Leicester City in the opening game of the Premier League season, Fred announced himself in compelling fashion.
Fred was not flawless against Leicester — far from it, he could have been more composed in possession at times — but, if we are being fair, his occasionally frenetic league debut may well have caused by a desire to get firmly in his new manager’s good books. Jose Mourinho, after all, is the type of manager for whom first impressions seem to be particularly important — for evidence of that, just ask Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Most importantly, though, he showed a level of intensity that perhaps only Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba at his most persistent could match in the United midfield. He boasts fine technique, eye-catching acceleration, good vision and notable defensive discipline — in short, he is just the kind of midfielder who can complement several other colleagues. While much has understandably been made of the manner in which he could enable Pogba to play at his best, it is also easy to imagine him performing well alongside Herrera, Andreas Pereira, Marouane Fellaini, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic.
United now have the option of playing a midfield of Pogba, Fred and Herrera, a trio as dynamic as any that Old Trafford has seen in recent memory. These are three players who can not only apply the press against opposing teams, but escape it — something which United’s slower midfielders have not always been able to do. There are knock-on effects higher up the pitch, too. Fred’s ability to cover a large amount of ground means less tracking-back for the forwards, allowing them to occupy space closer to the opposition goal and for more sustained periods.
United struggled in front of goal last season, and though their forwards missed some glaring opportunities the wider problem was a systemic one. Often the build-up play was so slow that it gave opposing defences the chance to prepare themselves, to close the gaps that naturally emerge as a team is hit on the break. Fred’s speed with and without the ball should help United to address that issue.
His teammates were very happy with what they saw, with Pogba, Pereira and Alexis Sanchez taking turns to praise his contribution. Even at this early stage, they and the Old Trafford crowd — who rose to acclaim him as he was substituted — saw his potential, and what he can bring to the team, are abundantly clear. The concern for United, though, should be that even with Fred in the side they did not dictate the play as they should have done. Leicester should have eventually been swept aside, given United’s superior personnel, but after the home side’s strong start they regressed to a painfully familiar pattern — sitting deep and making intermittent forays into the Leicester half, inviting pressure rather than imposing it.
This is, of course, a question of tactics rather than personnel, and it will take time for these players to develop relationships with each other on the field. It is also worth noting the contribution that an increasingly confident McTominay could make to Fred’s development. McTominay spent most of last season as Matic’s understudy, his passing and positioning fairly conservative, but in recent games he has begun to show a more expansive range of distribution in his game. With him screening the back four, and with Fred and Pogba breaking ahead of him, that is a nimble enough trio to see off most teams in the league.
The key question is whether the signing of Fred will be an element that can lift United ahead of Manchester City and Liverpool, who appear at first glance to be their closest rivals this season. It could certainly make them more competitive in tight matches, and it must be remembered that Mourinho’s record against these teams is fairly good.
What is notable about both City and Liverpool is the quality of chances that they create — very often they score from only a few yards out, after the ball has been worked wide and driven low across the area, the opposing team dragged out of shape. If Fred can offer the kind of incisive passing and movement that breaks down teams in this fashion, the vision to know when to switch play and when to advance, then United have a good chance of remaining in the title race until May. The superior attacking nous of City and Liverpool may yet tell in the end, but in Fred United have an asset who can yet make them a part of the title conversation.