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Ole & an Invincible: Why Man Utd now seeing Fred best

COMMENT: So what is it? What has been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's biggest achievement so far as Manchester United manager? The rapid progress of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial? The emergence of Mason Greenwood? Breaking down and rebuilding the culture at Carrington? Well, what about the Brazilian? The one they said was worse than Eric Djemba-Djemba...?

... of course they're not saying that today. A run of games. Some praise from the manager. And all of a sudden United have a decent player on their hands. Fred is now looking like the talent we all saw Mircea Lucescu bring through at Shakhtar Donetsk. The player both Pep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain had agreed would slip perfectly into Manchester City's midfield. Solskjaer highlighting the transformation in the aftermath of victory at Burnley. In the best traditions of the Doc or Big Ron, Solskjaer handed Fred the ultimate compliment, with a quip and twinkle in his eye.

Asked to rate Fred's performance by former teammate Paul Scholes, Solskjaer smiled: "I think Fred's improved a lot, and maybe two or three months ago people wouldn't have said Burnley away is going to be a game for Fred.

"But he's developed a lot, he's confident and he's a tenacious little midfielder, like you to be fair! A little bit quicker over the ground maybe."

He didn't get this from Jose Mourinho. Indeed, even this season, Fred wasn't getting any of this from football's authoritives.

It was only this campaign that disparaging comparisons with Djemba-Djemba were being drawn. Martin Keown, the irascible former Arsenal and Everton defender, branded Fred "a joke", claiming he couldn't "control or pass" the football. There was even a suggestion Mourinho never actually wanted Fred signed when in charge, the decision only made out of desperation as other midfield targets fell through.

And again, all these claims, this criticism, it was all raining down on Fred just a couple of months ago.

So what's changed? Well, first it has to be the manager. Solskjaer has long thrown his weight behind Fred, insisting the Brazil international would never get close to realising his potential without a consistent run of games.

And he's been true to his word. Another manager would've withdrawn Fred after the defeat at Watford. He wasn't United's worst player on the day. But with the likes of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic available, you could see such a change occurring.

Instead, Solskjaer stuck with his No17. One off day wasn't going to change his thinking. As he said at Turf Moor, "two or three months ago" those on the outside would've wrote off Fred for a trip to Burnley. But not Solskjaer. Excellent in victory over Newcastle. Outstanding against the Clarets. Fred is proving what Solskjaer - beyond anyone else in English football - saw in the Brazilian when first taking charge.

And it's personal for the manager. A lot has been made of his influence on the club's young strikers - and rightly so. The connection is obvious. But Solskjaer can also relate to the circumstances Fred endured under Mourinho. The Norwegian was Sir Alex Ferguson's ultimate super-sub. He was always having to fight for a regular start. He knows how living off bits and pieces of games affects a player. His form. His confidence. His career. Solskjaer, more than most, knows a player needs match rhythm. He knew Fred would never justify the £52m outlay without that consistent run of games. And now, paying such a fee is looking justified.

He is a midfielder ideal for the way Solskjaer wants this United team to play. As he told Scholes, he will compete. He'll get his foot in. But just as critical, Fred isn't one to sit on the ball. He can play it short. He can pass through the lines. But crucially, he'll move it quickly. As much as any United player, Fred has been a big influence on the success of Solskjaer's counter-attacking approach.

But beyond Solskjaer, there was a significant development off the pitch for Fred this season. Agent and mentor Gilberto Silva, the former Arsenal captain, chose to relocate himself from Brazil back to London. He wanted to be close to his clients - including Fred.

Their relationship goes beyond that of an agent and client. Gilberto is a sounding board for Fred. And being in England has helped accelerate the midfielder's progress.

“We are very open when it comes to speaking reality. I give my point of view, he puts his. We argue, there comes a point where we ask: what is the next step? How do we improve and solve? What is the solution to this question? It is very open," says Gilberto.

"I have a condition today with him of being able to speak in a very friendly but direct manner. What I think, what he thinks, how he played that game, what I saw. And he absorbs it very well."

Significantly, Gilberto adds: "Without proper continuity, (as a high-priced foreign signing) you end up suffering more than others, so it's normal. We have been talking about these issues all the time, letting nothing go by."

But now things have changed. Under a manager that believes in him, Fred is proving his potential, as Gilberto says: "He had to have continuity. A sequence of six, seven, ten games to get a better rating from people, because he's had to take a lot of s***, right?"

Just like Solskjaer, Gilberto could see it. A run of games. Some heart-to-hearts. And the player both men knew was inside Fred has now emerged. He's no Djemba-Djemba. And he can control the football.

With a little help from an Invincible, the transformation of Fred has to be as good an achievement as any Solskjaer has pulled off as United manager.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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