Hidden in plain sight, how Fred made Manchester United tick against RB Leipzig

You don’t really go viral for tackles, do you? Good ones, that is. Let’s take bad fouls as read given societies insatiable desire for malice on their second-screen. And last-ditch ones have their own romanticism. Again, we are suckers for suppressing the glory of others.

Think more the tackles that lead to nice things, like goals. The grittiest link on a chain that only gets shinier. Unquestionably the most important part of the move and yet so easily forgotten.

So it was for the interjections that led to two Manchester United’s goals on a perfect Wednesday night at Old Trafford. One that will be remembered for Marcus Rashford’s thrilling hat-trick, Mason Greenwood’s first Champions League goal with his first shot, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer setting his side up perfectly and being rewarded with a 5-0 scoreline, and Julian Naglesmann’s irredeemable sports coat.

But in a match in which last season’s semi-finalists RB Leipzig had more of the ball, getting it back was always going to be key. And for the first goal that eased United into the lead after a tough start, and the third on 78 minutes which decided the fixture outright, Fred played the key, forgettable parts.

Paul Pogba’s drive forward and cushioned pass through, in sync with Mason Greenwood’s perfectly-timed run (perhaps a little too perfect) and side-foot, would not have been without the Brazilian’s hustle. The action itself lacked the grace of his two more forward-inclined teammates: a tackle on the half-volley, one with a hint of stud but all ball, on RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo at the halfway line. But one perfectly timed and executed to give them the green light.

Fred played a crucial if unsung role in United’s midfield


The third was further forward, indicative of the hosts’ greater confidence and imposition on the side top of the Bundesliga but shorn of a handful of starters. It was one of those returning from injury, Marcel Sabitzer, who was caught cold and blind. A touch out of the air convinced the midfielder he had space, only for Fred to nip in having set off 20 yards earlier to prod the ball out of his reach and towards Rashford, who beat a man and got his second.

Neither were elegant but both were necessary. Fred, absolute. He is the equivalent of one of those spike strips police use to puncture the tyres of getaway cars. Robust, effective and often leaving others in a crumpled heap. And, as has been the case for the last 12 months, generally getting the job done when called upon.

There is a lot to extrapolate from Fred’s career at United and the club’s general direction since he signed for £47 million from Shakhtar Donetsk in June 2018. Of limitations evident but still having to blindly push on in unsuitable roles, only really showing progression when those limitations were embraced. Perhaps we can throw Solskjaer into that bracket, too.

The shortcomings in Fred’s work are never far away. Even here, for all his functionality, were odd bits of malfunction. When he’s not winning the ball back to other people, he is winning for himself and giving it away too many times not to notice. There remains frustration among those at the club that he takes one or two touches too many. And though there is a link between that tentativeness and confidence, being United’s most mobile screener means any improvement must be done on the job.

This was especially evident in the Premier League last season where he won possession back 234 times (only Harry Maguire, 237, did so more) yet failed with 209 passes, more than any other midfielder, despite not being required to do anything particularly outlandish.

On the right side of a diamond, that did not matter so much, especially with more craft around him with Pogba and Donny van de Beek. And that energy to shuttle from side to side came good towards the opposition goal as the game got stretched. It was his carry through Leipzig’s midfield that created space for a pass into Bruno Fernandes who flipped around the corner for Rashford’s first (2-0). Anthony Martial’s penalty, too, came through the 27-year-old having enough in the tank to arrive late in the middle of Leipzig’s half and pick out the Frenchman who was then felled in the box.

On the night, his eight recoveries, three of them interceptions, kept the opposition from building anything of worth. Just as last season, only Maguire saw more of the ball than he did. And while a lament may be that a limited ball-player having such an active role in possession is counter-productive, the couple of weeks since the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham – 1-4 against Newcastle, 1-2 against Paris Saint-Germain, the draw against Chelsea and now this 5-0 – have shown the benefits of a Fred-based approach. 

Solskjaer has been forced to think conservatively, relying more on transitions. Evidently, dictating play is beyond his managerial capabilities and something he must develop. For now, could he rebrand this iteration of United into perpetual counter-attackers?

It won’t be pretty or all that entertaining. Yet while they have the talent to attack at speed, in Fred they have someone with energy, devoid of pretension who make that sustainable, if only to keep a steady course. Given the lack of stability teams are exhibiting across Europe, it may continue to not be the worst idea. 


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