In praise of United's marathon man
Manchester United’s glory years under Sir Alex Ferguson were littered with heroic performances by midfielders who would often go under the radar.
The likes of Nicky Butt, Darren Fletcher and Ji-sung Park were the archetypal warriors in the middle of the park: they’d rarely pick up the individual awards, but they were integral to the Reds’ success and, inevitably, Sir Alex would deploy them in the games that really mattered.
Their domain were the domestic clashes between the ‘Big Four’ – then defined by the media as United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal – as well as Champions League quarter- and semi-finals. On those occasions, the aforementioned players rarely, if ever, let their side down, even when they weren’t being given an even complement of minutes across the rest of the campaign.
Now, it seems as though history could be repeating itself in the form of Fred, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s very own marathon man.
The Brazilian once again was the solid foundation upon which a convincing team performance was built, during the 5-0 win over RB Leipzig on Wednesday.
He completed a match-high four blocks and four interceptions to ensure there was no way through for the Bundesliga leaders, and also led the Reds in terms of shot and goal creating actions (six and three respectively), according to football stats site FBRef.com.
Two of his ball recoveries directly led to United goals, while he also found Anthony Martial late on in the build-up to the spot-kick the Frenchman successfully converted.
It was Fred’s fourth start – and third full game – in a row, in a month which has seen us recover from the setback of losing 6-1 at home to Tottenham to beat Newcastle, PSG and Leipzig and secure a creditable home draw with a clean sheet against Chelsea.
Apart from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof, both of whom are inarguable first-choice picks in their position, Fred was the only United outfielder to start and complete all four games against Manchester City and both clashes with Liverpool last season.
After being omnipresent so far during this Champions League campaign, there can be no doubt that Fred is now seen by Ole as integral to his set-up for big games, with the boss enthusing about the former Shakhtar Donetsk man’s role in the diamond after the final whistle at Old Trafford – and hinting he may be called into action again, for Arsenal at the weekend.
“The work off the ball, it was incredible,” Solskjaer told reporters.
“Nemanja [Matic], Fred, Paul [Pogba], Donny [van de Beek]: all four of them worked their socks off. That’s the basis of the team. If you can work hard and win the ball in good situations, you create chances.
“I’m sure Fred covered every single blade of grass on that pitch. It’s unbelievable how that boy just recovers for the next one.”
Ole’s view chimed with that of former United midfielder Owen Hargreaves, who was on the BT Sport panel covering the match.
“I think he can do everything, I think he can tackle, I think he can pass,” Hargreaves said. “He works hard, I think he’s a good team-mate.
“I think you can trust him and Ole has played him in the big games.”
It’s all a far cry from Fred’s difficult first 12 months in Manchester – the 27-year-old featured in fewer than 50 per cent of United’s league matches during his first campaign, and wasn’t seen at all for the first portion of 2019/20, prior to the international break.
Hargreaves’s fellow pundit, Reds legend Rio Ferdinand, admitted that he’d changed his opinion on Fred and could now see how valuable he is to the current side.
“I think he’s very much improved," Rio said. "I've got to be honest, I wasn’t a fan when he came [to United]. But maybe I was expecting too much of him because of the price tag, and his game isn’t what you’d say is a typical Brazilian’s type of game.
“If he sticks to what he’s good at - getting into people, being aggressive, getting around the pitch – and gives the ball to the creative players, then he’s alright.”
That may sound like damning Fred’s considerable football abilities with faint praise. But with the midfield Brazilian, Solskjaer knows exactly what he’s getting and, boy, does he appreciate that at the moment.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.