Tactical analysis: what is Fred? Part II

This is part II of a deep dive into Manchester United midfielder Fred, be sure to check out part I first.


Manchester United rarely do Fred a favor. You could already see that above with the goal they conceded against Leicester. Fred makes a terrible return pass, but United caused him to fail by giving him the ball with no options for what to do once he got the ball. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are both covered, while Alex Telles is all wide and a pass there would certainly be intercepted. This was not a one-off either. It happened plenty of other times too.

The blame for the team’s shortcomings is usually put on Fred, as it’s usually easiest to blame him. Yes, Fred could have stopped (and should have stopped) Everton’s goal in my opinion with a tactical foul on Gray, but he shouldn’t have taken all the blame when United still had men back, and extreme lazy to get out of their own penalty area after the corner kick.

What United does well is hiding Fred’s lack of height on air balls. Look closely at a long goal kick and you’ll often see Fred switch places with Maguire so Maguire can fight the air ball and then switch the two back.

Beyond that, however, the reality is that United do a bad job of putting him in a position to succeed consistently, either with their structure or with staff.

Fred makes up half of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ‘McFred’ pivot. The pair are essentially the first choice, not because they are particularly good, but because they provide energy in midfield and can be trusted not only to do that several times a week, but also to stay fit in the process. While they hit average as a pair and given that midfield is your team’s engine room, it’s not exactly a surprise that United are wildly inconsistent when they’re both playing.

Since the start of the 2019-20 season, McTominay and Fred have started 35 Premier League games together in the pivot (I don’t count Arsenal 2019-20 at home here because United was kind of a diamond formation, which helps their cause here). United won just 17 of those games (48.57%). To be blunt, that’s just not good enough; and while there are several excuses that can be thrown away – they played games before Bruno Fernandes arrived, they play the more difficult games etc – even if you break it down to account for those factors, they’re still hovering around 50 percent. The only real impact a specific player makes seems to be whether or not Paul Pogba starts on the left wing when he or she plays.

Despite being labeled a ‘defensive midfield’ duo, the pair aren’t particularly good defensively. That’s no surprise, as their skills don’t really complement each other.

Eliminating the games against the top six (to make it fair), United got an average of 10.3 successful open play box entries per game (whether it was a cross, pass or carry in the box) last season. In the games started by McFred, they averaged 11. Higher, but nothing significant.

This season, however, United only played against non-top six clubs and they held the lion’s share of possession, except for one (Leeds). Despite an average of 60 percent of possession, United are getting 13 successful boxes per game in the four games played by McFred! In the other three games, they also had an average of 60 percent possession, but only received 4.33 successful boxes per game! That’s quite a drop off.

Neither Fred nor McTominay can best be described as ‘a nanny’. Both players tend – albeit in different ways – to be pulled from their respective positions if they want to get involved in more tackles and interceptions.

Sometimes you’ll see McTominay come all the way to Fred’s side of the field, and if United don’t win the ball there, your opponent will walk behind your four.

Other times, McTominay gambles on his own side of the field, and if he doesn’t win the ball there, he leaves Fred isolated in the middle of the field. Since Fred isn’t a great physical midfielder, he won’t win that battle and you essentially let your opponent roam free on your backline.

For Fred, his bigger strengths (pressure + winning ground duels) become a weakness here. Remember when I said earlier that Fred is very well positioned? He does, at least at the beginning of a series. Fred takes good positions, but his ability to win the ball back or at least cause disturbances leads to him being pulled forward very easily and eagerly to try and win the ball back further up the field. This is great for breaking off counterattacks, and sometimes you don’t necessarily have to win the ball back, but do enough to stop the counterattack so your team can come back.

Fred usually has an extremely high number of players dribbled past him because he takes on so many 1v1 duels. This is all well and good if you have a midfielder behind you who can handle the attacker as he gets past you.

That’s a big if, because McTominay isn’t great positionally and often isn’t there when Fred is beaten. Meanwhile people like Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are generally not in the right position to start with and even if they are they are not great tacklers just the general defensive aspect of things. Except Nemanja Matic.

What Matic lacks in tempo, he makes up for in the ability to read the game and positioning, making his playing a perfect complement to Fred’s. With no possession of the ball, Fred can force the field to break through counter-attacks, win the ball back and cause a general nuisance. If he fails, he has his partner behind him who can step in and put things off long enough for the rest of the team to get back into shape. Fred enjoyed the same kind of partnership at the Copa America with Brazil when he played alongside Casemiro, which is why he was an integral part of their lead up to the final.

This dynamic makes Matic and Fred United by far the best defensive midfield pair.

The two were blown up a few times in their early days (Arsenal and Liverpool gone in January 2020), but were the pair that kept Pep’s City to just seven shots for an xG of 0.6 in the Manchester Derby just before lockdown. Most recently they started together against Southampton, by far the best defensive performance of the season for United, keeping the Saints to seven shots and 0.55xG before Fred was knocked out.

The Southampton match was a great example of seeing both sides of the coin. While Matic hides Fred’s defensive shortcomings, he strongly exposes Fred’s problems in possession.

Fred doesn’t like to have the ball at his feet and when he’s on the pitch with Matic he will often have the ball at his feet. Matic likes to fall back into the defensive line, essentially paving the way for his midfield partner to run the show. This helps someone like Paul Pogba thrive, but with Fred it just gives him the ball with plenty of time and space as opponents tend to move away from him and focus on United’s attackers. This forces Fred to choose passes, highlighting one of his weaker areas.

Fred likes to win it and move it quickly, but when he plays with Matic he is forced to be United’s more expansive midfielders. Just look at his pass card against Southampton, this is way too extensive for what Fred can do!

This is something that carries over to McFred’s pivot as well. Even if we take out the top six games, just look at the difference in how many touches Fred gets compared to McTominay, and how many passes their teammates aim at each of them.

In the past three years, Fred has been attacked about 13 times more often than McTominay and touches the ball almost 20 times more. As with Matic, Fred is the one tasked with dictating United’s play in midfield. This is not his forte and asking him to do it week after week is essentially putting him in failure.

Fred’s goals did drop last year and have dropped even further this season to the point where he is nearly level with McTominay. Given McTominay’s consistency in this area, it doesn’t look like United are solving this problem, they just tried to bypass the midfield altogether!

The Southampton match was truly the best recap of Fred you’ll ever see. Fred did all the off-the-ball stuff and the little things really well, which meant that Southampton never got a foothold in the game. But on the other hand United lacked any impulse to move forward. Since Fred was the one who had to play beyond his means and make the extended passes, he missed a lot, 13 to be exact.

Combine that with bad luck to find him (the own goal) and the watched like Fred was playing a really bad game, so it was Fred who backed off with fifteen minutes to go. But when Fred got off the court, United lost all of the ball stuff Fred gave them, and they lost completely their foothold in the game. United had 65.9 per cent of possession and shot past Southampton 14-7 before Fred was withdrawn. That fell to 53.3 percent in the last 15 minutes. Ole solved the problem of taking out the man who kept giving the ball away, but created a new problem by not having a man doing all that work in midfield to even have the ball.

Manchester United had to sign a defensive midfielder for various reasons this summer. Many believed it was simply to get Paul Pogba to play better in the pivot and have Donny van de Beek play there too. With United fans looking to add a defensive midfielder so they could switch to a 4-3-3, the ultimate bonus was that Fred wouldn’t be around.

That is not entirely true. Adding a defensive midfielder probably wouldn’t have meant the end of Fred, but just would have meant a much better Fred. The game against Villarreal showed us what many already knew, a 4-3-3 with Pogba and Bruno if the 8’s is never going to work.

Fred has shown to be someone who thrives in a three-man midfield. He needs that more positionally responsible defensive midfielder behind him so he can become a ball winner higher up the field, but in possession he needs that striker to be with him. All progression tasks do not fall squarely on his shoulders. Fred would thrive in the 4-3-3 set in when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first took the lead, and it should be remembered that he actually started in place of Ander Herrera in Solskjaer’s second game in charge . But that Fred was lost after a bad season and was snatched away after 53 minutes. Put the current version of Fred on that team and it might look a little different.

Ultimately, Fred is a high-end squad player. He’s not going to help you through the deepest blocks, but he’s someone who should be playing in more games than not. The trick is that you just have to cover up his weaknesses. If you don’t, his weaknesses can make him a huge liability and a lightning rod for anyone’s criticism. The things Fred brings to the table make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turn to him more often. United’s failure to tackle the massive black hole in the middle of the park, however, has meant that they will continue for another season, failing to replenish his strengths and amplifying his weaknesses. That will only lead to Fred continuing to be blamed for all sorts of things.

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