When Scott McTominay scored Manchester United’s second goal after 94 minutes to make it 2-0 in the Manchester derby, his teammates naturally ran to celebrate with him in front of an ecstatic Stretford End. One didn’t. Midfielder Fred dashed to the touchline to embrace coach Kieran McKenna, a man who helped him when his fortunes looked far less favourable than they do now.
The Brazilian was the best player when Manchester’s giants last met in the league in December, a surprise win for the Reds at the Etihad Stadium. And he was excellent again as his team overcame the Blues for the third time in four games this season.
A central midfield base of Fred and Nemanja Matic would have given United fans palpitations at the start of this season, but their stock has risen and the pair excelled against City in a League Cup tie (and another win in a tie they lost) in January. They helped United to an eighth clean sheet in 10 games on Sunday. Twelve goalscorers have found the net in the 24 goals since United's last defeat, with only two goals conceded. The triumph against City was the first at Old Trafford since 2015 – six of the last seven Manchester derbies have been won by the away team. City dominated at the start, but it didn't last.
Bruno Fernandes, signed from Sporting Lisbon in January, has been the game changer for United. Unlike Fred, he’s settled quickly and become one of his team’s main players, raising the level of those around him. Fred was already playing well when Fernandes arrived and has continued to do so. He’s influential on and off the pitch. Towards the end of the 150th Manchester league derby Fernandes was spotted putting his finger to his lips to suggest that Pep Guardiola kept his opinions to himself. The mood among United fans is utterly unrecognisable from six weeks ago with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, the pair considered two outfield world class players, injured and absent.
Fred has played more games than any midfielder or attacker this season – incredible when you consider he wasn’t even in the squad for United’s first four Premier League games. A Duracell bunny would tire before the indefatigable Brazilian.
Paul Pogba’s injury gave Fred chances and eventually, after a tricky autumn where his first league start of the season was a wretched 1-0 defeat at Newcastle, Fred warmed up, reduced the mistakes which caused him to lose confidence in games and became worthy of his place. His confidence was shot under previous manager Jose Mourinho, he didn’t feel valued, wanted or that he had a future at the club. Fred had been involved in every single United league game since August, yet it was only autumn when people inside the club were trying to pass on blame for who was responsible for signing him. Now they are all claiming to be responsibile.
Fred was one of the best players on the pitch in the top moment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time so far, the 3-1 win in Paris a year ago. That was the night where a song about having “Sanchez, Paul Pogba and Fred” was at its peak, yet Fred’s inclusion was because his name has one syllable rather than for his performances.
Solskjaer and his coaches always thought there was a top player there and one of them, Michael Carrick, was sufficiently experienced in the position to be an astute judge, but fans and teammates needed convincing. They’re convinced now after a third excellent performance against City on a windy, rainy and occasionally sunny Mancunian afternoon.
The 27-year-old drove his team forward, he tackled well, he cut out passes, he’s started threading passes through opponents and dispossessed Ilkay Gundogan. He’s created more chances than any of his teammates this season, he stands ready to take free-kicks, even if Fernandes takes them. One, after 29 minutes, was lifted towards Anthony Martial who struck past Ederson at his near post. Fernandes and Fred are combining beautifully and did so with a one-two to set up Dan James.
Shortly before half time, the Brazilian was booked for diving for a penalty, yet Nicholas Otamendi made contact with him and it looked more like a penalty than a dive. VAR didn’t overturn the decision.
"It was a clear foul on Fred,” said Solskjaer. "I asked Mike Dean about it and he said VAR checked it, so we must have different eyes."
The Norwegian is delighted.
"I am so happy - it is another win and another three points,” he said. "We had to defend well and drop deep in the first-half, but we managed to press them and made them make mistakes. The first 15, 20 minutes, we maybe made it harder for us than we should have, but then we hurried and harassed them a bit more and started to create chances.
We knew the more we kept the ball and kept them out of their rhythm, it would give us a better chance.
"It is a privilege to have players like we have here, with the commitment, the desire, humility and hard work they put in. That's what the fans love about this group of players, and there is a connection between the fans and the team. It means a lot to me."
Solskjaer and his team have always believed in Fred too and as his confidence has improved, so have Fred’s forward passes and even when he runs into congestion in a crowded midfield, he often manages to thread the ball to a teammate.
"Fred understands the club he's at more and the expectations," assistant manager Mike Phelan told The National after the game. "He understands his position more and what we want from him. He's more confident and playing well."
As is Nemanja Matic alongside him.
“That was Nemanja’s best game for us today,” added Phelan. “His positioning, his reading of the game. He’s had two excellent games against City.”
United are very close to agreeing a contract extension with the Serbian. Fred is well under contract and thriving, but United are still only fifth and their current run of consistency must continue if they’re going to get nearer the top. Things are looking much brighter than they did six weeks ago.