“We need to sign a midfield player because we are going to lose Michael Carrick,” said Jose Mourinho in February. “I told you that one or two months ago when we were speaking about the market. When some of you keep saying that we are going to buy that striker, that winger, that left winger, that right winger. I told you two months ago.”
It says something about Mourinho’s typical media strategy that he felt the need to point out he had told the truth, but Manchester United’s manager could not have been more clear. Mourinho might consider that there are a few holes in his bucket, dear Ed, dear Ed, but central midfield is where the water was leaking fastest. Having played at Anfield for Brazil on Sunday, Fred will be given permission to head along the M62 for a medical in Manchester on Monday.
One of the hallmarks of Man United’s 2017/18 season was the staccato nature of their attacking play. While you could see the relationships blossoming in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side – Kevin de Bruyne with Fernandinho, Raheem Sterling with Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero, David Silva with Leroy Sane – United only ever looked like a collection of component parts. They repeatedly relied on individual brilliance or opposition flaw.
That is why there was such a swing in performance level on a game-by-game basis. Individuals by their very nature are not consistent. Only by reducing the responsibility upon the individual by creating an effective system can you realistically hope to achieve lasting consistency. Or more pertinently here: United’s problem was one of system, not personnel.
Given the individual ability in Man United’s final third, their creativity was a matter of great embarrassment. Their total of 377 chances created was the sixth-best in the Premier League, and United were closer to Bournemouth, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Watford and Newcastle than they were to any other member of the top six. The two lasting images of their season were Antonio Valencia running to the byline and trying to drill in a cross or a wide forward taking on two opposition players before being left frustrated.
If one immediate fix to sluggish attacking is to release the handbrake a little, Mourinho believes that would be a dangerous step. Neutrals (and many United supporters) may have delighted in the surging, searing attacking play they demonstrated in the 3-1 victory at Arsenal in December, but Mourinho appreciated that David de Gea had saved his skin. Arsenal had 33 shots to United’s eight; this was not a ratio Mourinho was comfortable with. The pragmatist is loath to try and solve one problem by changing part of the side that does work.
Of the 52 players to create 35 or more chances in the Premier League last season, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal each boasted five and Liverpool four. Man United had just two. If every forward-thinking club now desires a creative force (De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen have become their clubs’ MVPs), the runners-up are lacking one.
There are two obvious solutions to that problem. The first is to sign more and more attacking players in the hope of something finally clicking, or perhaps spend an astonishing amount of money on a creator (the Mesut Ozil interest was real). The second is to reorganise central midfield to create greater bonds with the attack.
Mourinho may have discussed filling Carrick’s place, but Fred will not mimic his role. In fact, the statistics are a little ridiculous. During Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League campaign last season, Fred ranked first for tackles – so he’s a bulldog defensive midfielder? He ranked first for touches and first for passes – so he’s deep-lying playmaker? He ranked third for chances created and third for shots – so he’s a box-to-box midfielder that makes runs from deep? He ranked first for dribbles completed – so he just does sodding everything?
The suggestion that the Brazilian will be the replacement for Paul Pogba does not necessarily carry any weight either. Fred is the complete central midfielder, if not in terms of talent then certainly style. This is a South American one-man band, tapping his feet to clash the cymbals while his hands manipulate an accordion. His presence, along with Nemanja Matic’s protection, should allow Pogba to play much further up the pitch. Mourinho will hope that Pogba – United’s second-highest chance creator with 39 – can double that number next season. He could be United’s creator.
Instead, the obvious fall guy of Fred’s arrival is Ander Herrera, who started only 13 league games in 2017/18. The suspicion is that Fred does Herrera’s job and more, albeit with far less of the glorious/disgusting (delete as appropriate) shithousery.
When Herrera was substituted at half-time in the home defeat to West Brom in April, Mourinho explained his decision post-match: “In the first half I felt I had to bring one player with more dynamism and a player that runs more and has more touches of the ball.” That defines Fred’s strengths exactly.
Either United set up in a 4-3-3 and let Pogba roam further forward from the left with Matic and Fred shuffling over as required, or Mourinho could even play with a 4-2-3-1 that sees Pogba play an advanced central role closer to Romelu Lukaku. That should also ease the issue of Lukaku’s isolation.
After a season in which Mourinho has accused several players of hiding from the fight and shying away when the going got tough, he has demanded that Man United sign those who will stand up to be counted. The signing of a central midfielder might seem an odd way of solving attacking issues, but Mourinho believes differently. From staccato to legato; Fred can be Man United’s perfect catalyst, causing a reaction in those ahead of and beside him.
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