Football is filled to the brim with stories of incredible turnarounds. They can be found in every nook and corner of the game and footballers have multiple stories about it. They almost define them and their character. One of the turnarounds this season has been Fred, who has defied critics with a string of impressive performances for Manchester United.
Looking back, this seemed like a piped dream for the Brazilian last season. There was speculation that he was never a Jose Mourinho signing and he was constantly being made clear of that. The price-tag of £52 million seemed like mere hyperbole, as a lack of trust from Jose saw him become an easy target for the Portuguese.
While that might be pure speculation, how things went about on the pitch showed that something indeed was wrong. Under Jose in the Premier League, Fred played only seven games. Against Arsenal and Liverpool, he wasn’t even included in the squad as Mourinho had gone into self-destruct mode. This had given many the impression that before even making an impact, Fred was a spent force at Old Trafford.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there was a period where Fred didn’t play a single minute in eight games in the Premier League. It was only around the injury-stricken month of March that he got some minutes and it began with a start against Crystal Palace away from home.
While glimpses of his qualities were seen in the sensational comeback over Paris Saint-Germain in the French capital, but Fred didn’t play a single minute in the last three league games. That wasn’t a good indicator, as the injured players had come back and the Brazilian was relegated to the bench once again.
There were also doubts about what Fred really was as a player. Very few knew what sort of a player he actually was. This led to him struggling for an identity. The lack of stability at United contributed to that, but no one knew what Fred really brought to a midfield. Whether he would thrive as an advanced midfielder like he did at Shakhtar Donetsk, or would he play in the Nemanja Matic role or would he be the box-to-box midfielder- perhaps not even Fred knew of it.
Fast forward to today- the scenario has completely changed. It is almost like a makeover from a dilapidated house that was burnt down to a castle that symbolises the new Manchester United. He has become the guiding force of the team, months after being a potential spent force. So much so that Fred could easily be United’s Player of the Season in the current campaign.
He’s like a new player in terms of ability and mental resolve. Fred has become a player who loves to get involved in everything a midfielder can possibly do. He’s the workhorse of the team; the engine that binds United together.
His output in all regards has gone up. Last season, the 27-year-old made around 9.1 recoveries per 90 minutes. While that isn’t a bad number, but this season has seen improvement in this regard too. In the current campaign, Fred has made 9.81 recoveries per 90 minutes (per Soccerment). That is more than Matteo Kovacic or any other player who’s donned the box-to-box midfield role in the Premier League this season.
His ability to carry the ball has come leaps and bounds too. The previous campaign saw him attempt only 1.38 dribbles per 90 minutes and he completed only 0.86 of them. He had a dribbling accuracy of 62.5 percent, playing in an uncertain role every time he stepped onto the pitch.
The same metric from this season shows that Fred hasn’t just improved. He’s getting on the ball more and he’s trying very hard to make it work.
He’s attempted 2.26 dribbles per 90 minutes, completing 1.69 of them (more than he attempted last season). He now boasts of an accuracy of 74.5 percent, thriving in the regular game-time that Solskjaer has given to carve out an identity.
He has contributed to 11 percent of United’s chances this season and that is well more than thrice of what it was last season (3.1 percent). Getting on the ball more has allowed him to influence play more, making sure that he creates 1.51 chances per 90 minutes.
It is vital to note that the balance of these abilities has remained quite the same as last season. But the quantity and volume has gone many levels up. And this is all down to him putting in some hard yards to prove people wrong to win over the manager, who has given him the platform to go out there and express himself.
Before Bruno Fernandes’ marked arrival, United’s midfield was in tatters in multiple games. It was a case of round pegs in square holes, as both Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay were out due to injuries. It was during this time that Fred really got going, regularly taking the initiative to roar the team on when they failed to breakdown low-blocks.
He’s taken full advantage of the injuries and the initially wayward form of Matic to become the sort of player that Old Trafford loves. He’s had to put his head down, work his socks off and grab the chances that he got with both hands to come this far. If there’s anyone who loves that attitude, they’re Man United fans.
His underperformance of 1.35 on his XG has been down to him not having the best finishing in the land. But that will only improve- like everything else has. Solskjaer’s United covers a lot of ground and with Bruno now in the team and Fred thriving, they are close to finding an identity.
This identity has helped Fred thrive under Ole and if things keep going this way, it will only get better. The idea is to keep using him in this role with a defensive midfield behind him. Let him go about winning tackles, recovering the ball and playing it forward. Fred has finally acquired the propulsion that he really needed.