Why Fred must start for Manchester United
Background image: Daniel, CC by 2.0
Manchester United have lacked control in games this season, yet forgotten man Fred can unlock Paul Pogba’s talent and bring stability to a thus-far jagged and loose midfield.
United have been disposed the third-most in the league, losing the ball on 56 occasions during just four matches. Rivals Liverpool, in contrast, are 18th, having lost the ball just 31 times.
The media-magnet that he is, Pogba has inevitably been held culpable. Indeed, Pogba is United’s gravest offender, giving the ball away 11 times, the fifth most in the league. The Frenchman relinquished possession three times in the space of 90 seconds against Southampton last weekend and also gave the ball away that led to Crystal Palace inflicting their first ever defeat against United at Old Trafford the week prior.
The evidence is damning, yet it isn’t all Pogba’s fault. The Frenchman has cut a frustrated figure this season, shouldering the responsibility to make something happen. Pogba has often lost possession not because he’s being selfish, but because of a lack of bodies around him. Of course, there are moments when the simple pass has been on and he has neglected this in favour of a Hollywood-pass, only for it to be sprayed out of play.
Yet the wantaway man’s torrid start to the term hasn’t been helped by a lack of back-up in the midfield. It’s not Scott McTominay’s fault, either. He has started the season in the same vein as he finished the last: with energy, grit and awareness in the middle of the park. While United should not revolve around one man, it is clear that Pogba needs a third centre-midfielder around him.
At Juventus he had Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal; with France, he has the indefatigable N’Golo Kante, who does the job of two. When Pogba has the assurance that the simple pass will always be on, or that he can create space through a quick exchange with his midfield partners, he is at his best. He no longer has to be the fulcrum, the channel through which everything runs.
Liberated of this duty, he can find space across the midfield, assured that two other midfielders are sharing the burden. Everyone wants Pogba to be a player who picks the ball up and drives through the midfield, all-conquering and domineering. He can do this, but not all the time. He needs men around him, as most ball-playing midfielders do.
Andreas Periera slotted into a midfield three away at Southampton but was largely anonymous and failed to make his presence felt. It was the right tactical selection, but the wrong personnel. United need a midfielder capable of keeping possession, keeping things ticking and moving – in essence, a passing midfielder.
In Fred, last summer’s £52million recruit, they have that player. Fred looked erratic and nervous for most of his first season – notably losing the ball against Wolves back in April in a perilous position, allowing Raul Jimenez to slot in Dioga Jota and equalise. However, there were flashes and indications that he can produce what he was bought for.
Against Paris Saint-Germain in the last-16 of the Champions League, Fred looked the most assured and confident of an inexperienced trio including both Periera and McTominay. Unfortunately, just as United have failed to live up to the hype that fabled European night promised, so too has Fred.
United have come up short against Wolves, Crystal Palace and Southampton because they’ve lacked dominance in the midfield. Part of Liverpool and Manchester City’s success has been the vice-like grip they take in games. Their midfielders are adept at switching the play, showing for possession, keeping the ball in tight areas and constructing an energetic yet patient midfield base from which their attack can flourish.
Re-introducing Fred could be the solution to Solskjaer’s midfield dilemma. Fred can sit alongside McTominay in a base-two with Pogba spearheading the triangle or all three could be strung across a flat three.
The Brazilian has the talent and ability bring so much needed composure and consistency to a midfield that has floundered and flapped in the face of stubborn opposition.