Man Utd miss frantic energy of Fred the Legs as Casemiro crumbled in his absence

Ryan Baldi
Erik ten Hag, Casemiro and Fred at Man Utd
Erik ten Hag, Casemiro and Fred at Man Utd

Last August, Manchester United accepted a £13m bid for a player they once paid almost £50m to sign.

It was just one more example of the club’s poor planning and execution in the transfer market, the latest in a long line of players bought at great expense only to later be shipped out at a huge loss to barely a ripple of consternation.

But this one is costing United more than most. They miss Fred.

Signed from Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer of 2018, no one would argue that the Brazilian midfielder lived up to his billing after United fended off rival interest from Manchester City. A string of impressive Champions League outings with the Ukrainian side had caught the eye. He’d showcased a dynamism in the middle of the park desperately lacking at Old Trafford, as well as a discipline in shielding the backline and a handy ability with free-kicks.

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Fred was not ultimately the star his price tag tipped him to be. Instead, he settled into a niche as a useful player. He seldom lit up Old Trafford with the bursts between the thirds he’d shown with Shakhtar. Nor did he ever single-handedly control games. And his dead-ball prowess never made the journey from eastern Europe.

Instead, Fred was a reliable second man in midfield, a jack of – if not all – most trades who could sit deep to partner a more adventurous colleague, or provide endeavour in abundance beside a more cultured playmaker or a more astute defensive-minded destroyer. He was content with his lot, too, never agitating to start more games or to see more of the ball or to be given the chance to wind back the clock to when he used to take – and sometimes score from – set-pieces at his previous club.

Fred was far from perfect even in this secondary role. He could be guilty of a brainless pass every now and then and he played with a frantic energy that kept him on the edge of conceding a costly free kick or a needless caution.

But he was a grafter who clocked in, lunch pail under arm, and completed an honest day’s work at the coalface. And all with a smile and effervescence that lifted those around him. He might never have justified his lofty transfer fee, but he had value to United. A value that has become stark in his absence.

United sold Fred to Fenerbahce last summer. And since the very first game of the 2023/24 Premier League season – a fortunate 1-0 Old Trafford victory over Wolves – great chasms have appeared in Erik ten Hag’s midfield. Spaces through which opponents have raced to hurt United, setting the 20-time champions of England on course for their worst-ever Premier League finish and their most all-competitions losses since 1978. Gaps that Fred, with his indefatigable ability to cover ground, could have plugged.

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Casemiro, who’d been arguably United’s best player last season when regularly paired with his fellow Brazilian former team-mate, appears to have aged rapidly, lost amid the turmoil and turbulence that is the Red Devils’ middle third. And Kobbie Mainoo, the gifted teenager whose breakthrough has given United’s season a modicum of positivity, has been burdened with too great a tactical and physical workload for one so young.

“Fred has a lot of qualities,” Casemiro said of his Selecao team-mate upon signing for United in 2022. “I think he’s a player that has good movement. He’s very mobile, passes the ball well, he has a good shot on him, he can play with both feet, left or right, he can pass the ball well with either foot. He’s a great player. That’s why he plays for Brazil and he’s a very important player at this club and I think he’ll help me a great deal as he’s Brazilian. I think he’ll help me a lot at the club.”

Last season, Fred ranked in the 95th percentile among Premier League midfielders for tackles per 90 minutes, according to, as well as the 80th percentile for interceptions and the 99th percentile for blocks. He was in the 88th percentile for dribbles challenged, the 89th percentile for tackles in the middle third of the pitch and the 91st percentile for defensive actions that led to a shot.

More than a mere disruptor, he also ranked in the 90th percentile among midfielders for expected assisted goal and the 95th percentile for shot-creating actions.

Again, this isn’t to suggest that Fred was some combination of a prime Luka Modric, peak Barcelona-era Sergio Busquets and a straight-edge Diego Maradona. He could not have solved United’s injury crisis, injected Ten Hag with charisma or fixed Old Trafford’s leaky roof. But he was a decent player among a squad of not-so-decent players and he fulfilled a role that, in retrospect, was more important than many seemed to realise.

Fred was the legs Casemiro no longer has. He was the versatile and experienced worker who could have ushered along Mainoo. He was United’s chaotic stabiliser. And they miss him.

More: Man Utd | Casemiro | Ten Hag’s future