It was a comment so pithy, a put-down so concise and effective, that even Graeme Souness had to pause his own sentence, admire the snark, let out a smirk and briefly forget about trying to blame Paul Pogba.
“He won’t make Manchester United better, but having said that Man United bought Fred,” said Roy Keane, the deadpan delivery only highlighting the reaction of the rest of his colleagues. Jamie Carragher tittered like only a Liverpool fan in that situation could; Gary Neville barely stifled his response, the corners of his mouth angling ever so slightly, almost wincing as his chest expanded to let out an internal laugh; David Jones, a presenter free from the constraints of a former player having to maintain a miserly, grumpy demeanour, chuckled away.
But a player who was “becoming a joke” at the start of the month had been rendered an unnecessary and rather harsh punchline before October’s end. Just as Fred quietly impressed for a second consecutive Premier League game, he was reminded of the futility of challenging established judgements.
Fred was not faultless at Norwich, nor against Liverpool the previous week. Sloppy passes almost created two first-half chances for the opponent in the former, while the latter saw him have 40 touches in 90 minutes to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s 37 in 31. Yet he has been crucial to a significant draw and impressive victory in the space of seven Premier League days, with a Europa League rest in between outlining his new-found importance to the cause.
There is a wider discussion to be had about a Manchester United midfielder making eight tackles against Norwich and still not registering the highest number (Aaron Wan-Bissaka had 10), but that is more a reflection of the club’s standing than that of any player. Fred was diligent and composed alongside Scott McTominay; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not alone in seeing a player who is “just improving and improving”.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of his performance was that the Brazilian was not dispossessed once at Carrow Road, nor did he make a single unsuccessful touch. As much as these are midfield baby steps and a low bar being cleared, the development and progress made since that Rochdale aberration is obvious. And while the standard of opposition has to be taken into account, this was precisely the sort of obstacle that has felled United this season.
There is a reason Solskjaer is “delighted” with Fred’s refinement. The 26-year-old has faced undue pressure at Old Trafford, signed by a manager who supposedly never wanted him, moving more than 2,000 miles to a different team in a different country with different players and an entirely different lifestyle, and subsequently being expected to impress in a time of club-wide turmoil, with every action placed under the sort of microscopic lens he was not subjected to in Ukraine. His compatriot Fabinho is proof of the benefits of a settling-in period that Fred was never really afforded.
The key is that there seems to have been some sort of mea culpa, an acceptance of at least some of the blame for his struggles. ‘Right,’ said Fred. ‘This one’s on me.’ He made his own life more difficult by trying to fight an uphill battle in moccasin slippers but has learned the virtues of keeping it simple and uncomplicated. A few moments against Norwich betrayed a player not quite comfortable in his surroundings – or maybe too comfortable – but Fred’s emergence as a genuine and reliable option softens the blow of losing Pogba to injury.
The Frenchman’s creativity would be difficult for any midfielder to replicate, yet Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James is a combination capable of making something out of nothing. All those behind need to do is facilitate them.
Fred is more than capable. For £47m that is the minimum expectation; United will want a far greater contribution in the coming months and years. But the positive steps made in the past week or so deserves credit, not headlines created by Keane condemnation.