When Brazil play their strongest team, Manchester United midfielder Fred is in their starting line-up. The 28-year-old plays in central midfield, just ahead of Real Madrid’s Casemiro or Liverpool’s Fabinho or Roberto Firmino, just behind Neymar, Vinicius Junior, Gabriel Jesus, Everton or Everton’s Richarlison.
Fred has played 12 times for Brazil in 2021, the only defeat coming in the Copa America final against Argentina. Brazil kept nine clean sheets in Fred’s 12 games. Two weeks ago, he played 90 minutes against Argentina. Lionel Messi did not score.
Fred’s stock is higher for Brazil than for United, where he has had an inconsistent time which has mirrored the team since joining for £47 million ($62.5m) from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018. A year in, this correspondent received a call from someone close to United suggesting that I did some digging into who was responsible for his "disgraceful" transfer. There were no such calls two weeks later when Fred was man of the match away in a win at Manchester City.
Fred is a mainstay of United, too. Not in the idealised best XIs which fans draw up and favour more glamorous names, but in reality. He’s had good and bad games this season, but he has been influential in both of United’s last two games with Michael Carrick as caretaker manager.
“He’s played a little bit higher up the pitch,” Carrick told The National ahead of Thursday’s game against Arsenal. “We’ve tweaked a couple of things for both games and he’s done ever so well, especially with the regains - which led to Cristiano [Ronaldo]’s goal in Villarreal. He nearly got one (against Chelsea) when he intercepted from [Edouard] Mendy and he nearly scored.”
Nearly is pushing it. United mascot Fred the Red would have made a better effort, for Fred’s shot which could have given United a late win in front of their travelling fans was weak and easily saved, but he was in the right advanced position, despite United playing defensively, to win the ball, as he was twice in Villarreal.
Fred plays mainly because he does his defensive duties well and compensates for the defensive frailties of the attackers. That is now more relevant that ever with Ronaldo in the team. Fred has had some bad moments on the ball, the worst being at the start of October when he was muscled off the ball twice by Everton’s Demarai Gray in the lead to their equaliser.
That was the afternoon that many fans lost faith in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager. Yet, within United, there is a feeling that Fred was a significant reason why the team finished second last season; that his game is all about getting to the ball, blocking the opponents’ passing lanes, and being well positioned to do that. Solskjaer always felt that he read the game well, that he was extremely mobile, and that, being smaller, he could make the type of tackles that he’s been praised for in the last week.
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Fred will never make an English teacher, but he’s popular in the dressing room, he always has a smile even when others who share his Portuguese mother tongue don’t.
“It gets overlooked that he’s the first choice midfielder in a good Brazil team,” said Carrick. “That shows how much he’s improved since he joined the club. I really like him and for me one of the biggest things which maybe people don’t see is the attitude and his desire to be a team player. He’s desperate to put himself out there to play games.”
So desperate that he’ll play through pain.
“He twisted his ankle in the first half against Villarreal,” revealed Carrick. “That would have seen a lot of players come off at half time. To come out in the second half when you’re stiff and swollen and sore isn’t always easy, but he got through that. He bounced into the game and there was no way he was going to miss the next one (at Chelsea). That mentality is infectious and I’m all for that. Fred brings a great energy to the team.”
Fred is no fan hero. The term ‘McFred’ to describe him and his usual midfielder warhorse foil of Scott McTominay is more pejorative than praise. Even when he’s excellent, such as in the second half against Atalanta at home, he gets overshadowed by the goalscorers.
But he’s coming up against top players for club and country and playing well. Etienne Capoue was the man of the match against United for Villarreal in the Europa League final in Gdansk and at Old Trafford. Not last week he wasn’t, with Fred on his case as he pushed up on the Frenchman.
Fred’s energy means he can press and now he’s charged with winning the ball higher up. That has long been a foundation of the type of football played by Ralf Rangnick, United’s interim manager who is expected to be in the Old Trafford stands for the Arsenal game but not pick the team since he’s waiting on approval for a work permit.
Carrick, usually a coach, has long worked with and encouraged Fred, even when he was performing well in training but not replicating that in matches in 2018-19. He only played 25 games in his first difficult season at Old Trafford, when he didn’t feel the confidence of his manager Jose Mourinho.
The opinion was that his head would go down when he made his first mistake, but the man from Brazil’s third biggest city, Belo Horizonte, improved and played 48 United games in each of the following seasons.
He has a big game against Arsenal at Old Trafford, but United are statistically better with Fred in the team – a team he wants to huddle before games. Fred has still got to be more consistent and give the ball away less but he is in a good place as United welcome a new manager who might value his qualities.