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Man Utd's Fred: The missing piece for Mourinho's midfield puzzle

Fred was Manchester United's most expensive addition of the summer transfer window, joining for a reported fee of £52 million. The amount of money outlaid by the club to seal the player's signature underlined the notion that he is going to have an important role within Jose Mourinho's squad over the coming months and years. But what exactly will that role entail?

The 25-year-old made his mark on European football during five seasons with Shakhtar Donetsk. There he evolved from one of many intriguing Brazilian imports into one of the most exciting playmakers on the continent. His progression was particularly pronounced in the final two years of his time in Ukraine, in which he played under the auspices of Paulo Fonseca.

Fonseca generally opted for a basic 4-2-3-1 system that involved some interesting movements. As is almost customary nowadays in such a system, both full-backs pushed high and the wingers pushed infield. But, rather than have the central midfielders pull wide of the centre-backs, the centre-backs split wide and the central midfielders stayed, well, central.

As one of Shakhtar's central midfielders, Fred was responsible for taking possession from the centre-backs, often in a central area of the pitch. From here he could draw pressure from the opposition, creating space behind for Shakhtar's attacking midfielders to exploit, or he could control, turn and penetrate with forward passes.

The above image, produced by 11tegen11, shows a rather typical Fred performance for Shakhtar. As seen, his average position is in the strategically important centre. The large size of the dot indicates that he had more touches than any of his teammates, which confirms how integral he was to the team's build-up. Finally, as signified by the arrows, he interacted a great deal with his attacking teammates – the two full-backs, the three attacking midfielders, and the striker – suggesting he was key to progressing attacks into the final third.

Within Shakhtar's attacking approach, Fred showed himself to be an immensely composed receiver and a precise ball-player, qualities that no doubt attracted Manchester United. Mourinho evidenced recognition of this when discussing his new signing in July, saying: "We think that players like Fred…are more technical, passing and playing in short spaces and maybe connecting with the attacking players."

However, playing in midfield for Fonseca and playing in midfield for Mourinho require vastly different attributes. For Fred, moving from Shakhtar to Manchester United was never going to be a simple transposition of qualities – he will have to adapt slightly in order to succeed at Old Trafford, and this was made very clear on his competitive debut.

Starting his new team's Premier League opener against Leicester City, Fred struggled for the most part. Operating on the right-hand side of a three-man midfield within a 4-3-3 system, he demonstrated the occasional assured touch, but was unable to gain the sort of influence he had at Shakhtar mainly down to the fact that Manchester United had the minority of possession against Leicester.

Having scored early on, Mourinho's side sat off and were content for their opposition to have the ball. They defended in a 4-5-1 block with a midfield press that saw the middle five move up to pressure their opposite men around the halfway line or just inside their own half. The central three, of which Fred was a part, were responsible for covering one another when one moved up to apply pressure, as Paul Pogba does below.

Fred played some nice long horizontal passes to switch play to the far side and was at times involved in some nice combinations to improve build up, but he also made mistakes. He lost possession under pressure a number of times and showed signs of not having quite fully adjusted defensively.

The below graphic offers one example of poor decision-making without the ball. Here, Leicester's left-back has the ball on the left flank. Juan Mata is moving out to pressure him, while Fred occupies space inside of Mata, offering cover for the Spaniard. While initially positioned well, he opts to push forward to gain better access to the nearby Leicester midfielder, taking away the opposition left-back's nearest passion option. However, in doing so he leaves Mata one on one with his faster opposite man, who beats him and moves into the space between Manchester United's lines.

One positive was that Fred did contribute positively to attacks and counter-attacks with line-breaking passes. However, there were also instances of him avoiding such opportunities, as he does in the below example. Here, he receives the ball and Mata moves out to offer a penetrative pass. Yet, rather than find Mata, eliminate three Leicester players and progress the attack, Fred chooses to pass backwards to the far side.

As this season goes on, more can be expected of Fred with and without the ball. Mourinho looks set to commit to a three-man midfield after preferring a two for much of last term, and his new signing should continue on the right side of the trident, acting as a linkage between the more defensive central player – Andres Pereira or Nemanja Matic – and the left-sided Pogba. This position should allow Fred to knit attacks together, opening up defences just as he did at Shakhtar, and fill a vital gap within Manchester United's midfield.

Blair Newman
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Blair Newman

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