Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, more commonly known as Fred, became Manchester United’s second signing of the summer for a reported fee of £52 million on a five-year deal. The Brazilian, capped only eight times so far by the Selecao, was a part of their World Cup squad but failed to get on the pitch, depriving United fans to see their newest midfielder in action on the world stage.
Nevertheless, he had a stellar season at Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, especially in the Champions League, where he helped them qualify for the knockout stages ahead of Napoli and Feyenoord. Fred’s performances in Europe were the major reason why there was a queue of clubs waiting to snap him up; he almost signed for Manchester City in January before the deal fell through. City’s loss was United’s gain, as Jose Mourinho bagged himself a versatile, technically accomplished midfielder who could be the missing link that allows United’s midfield to function better as a unit.
Fred usually played on the right of a two-man midfield in Shakhtar’s 4-2-3-1 system throughout last season and can be expected to play a similar role for United as well. Whether in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, Fred’s role should be that of box-to-box midfielder; tasked with carrying the ball from deep, recycling possession and prompting attacking moves through his incisive passing in the attacking phase, while dropping in to support Matic in front of United’s defensive line in the defensive phase. The Brazilian has proven adept at this during his time in Ukraine, as the following examples will show.
One of the first things that immediately comes to mind when watching Fred is his technical ability on the ball. He is extremely comfortable in possession and has superb dribbling skills, meaning that he is often able to wiggle out of tight spots on the pitch, aided by a sharp turn of pace. This makes him an ideal player to break the opposition’s lines, and he should be able to dovetail nicely with Paul Pogba in this regard. Fred’s stats from Shakhtar’s Champions League campaign illustrate this well: he completed 23 successful take-ons from eight appearances, with an 89% success rate. This is brought into even sharper focus when compared with some of his peers. Fred made 2.88 successful take-ons per 90 minutes, ahead of the likes of Pogba (2.27), Ilkay Gundogan (1.97), Nemanja Matic (1.27) and Kevin De Bruyne (2.44). These numbers show just how dangerous Fred can be from midfield, moving into attacking areas of the pitch and breaking defensive structures.
The Brazilian is quite accomplished on the ball too, as you would expect from any player linked to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side. His pass accuracy was a commendable 85% during Shakhtar’s European campaign, but it is when you look a little deeper into the numbers that his role truly stands out. Almost 65% of his passes were made forward, while he created 1.13 chances per 90 minutes, bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne in the list of midfielders used above. Fred’s passing range is excellent; he can go long or short, he generally retains the ball as shown by his pass completion stats, and has a number of varied options in his arsenal to break down opposition defences – examples of these are provided below.
As the right-sided player in Shakhtar’s two-man midfield, Fred would often drift towards the right touchline, looking to combine with the winger and full-back before playing a diagonal ball behind the opposition’s defence with his favoured left foot, as seen in the image below. This sort of pass is something that would potentially work extremely well with the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, who look to make diagonal runs behind the opposition.
He is also adept at playing such passes from a more central position, as illustrated above. Further, Fred can also play incisive through balls along the ground. He set up Bernard for a goal against Feyenoord with just this sort of pass, shown below.
Finally, Fred can also find players in space between the lines, and he is comfortable with playing quick one-twos to get the ball forward rapidly.
This paints a picture of a proactive midfielder; one who looks to move the ball and team forward in possession, and it is this sort of dynamism which was sorely lacking from United’s midfield last season.
If Fred is to play as a box-to-box midfielder, the defensive side of his game needs to be up to scratch as well. Happily for United fans, this aspect holds up well under scrutiny too. The Brazilian won 2.25 tackles per 90 in the Champions League, comfortably ahead of all of his aforementioned midfield peers, while making 1 interception per 90. These numbers, when placed in comparison with those of Nemanja Matic, will demonstrate the different roles the two players are expected to play this season. Matic averaged 1.75 successful tackles per 90 minutes but made 2.07 interceptions in the same period. This shows their different but complementary roles; Fred will drop back and harass the man in possession, looking to regain the ball and launch a quick counter-attack, while Matic will shield the defence, using his superb positioning skills to shut opposition passing lanes and win the ball back through interceptions. This combination would create a complete and compact midfield, alleviating the defensive burden on Matic while also giving Pogba relatively little to worry about defensively. The only area of weakness in this regard is Fred’s lack of aerial ability; he won only 17% of his aerial duels last season in Europe, but with Pogba (30%) and Matic (69%) in the team, that should not be a cause of too much concern.
Fred could potentially be the missing piece in the jigsaw that is the Manchester United midfield. His dribbling and passing skills make him the perfect link man, while his defensive efforts will allow Pogba to flourish. A potential midfield trio of Matic, Fred and Pogba would be balanced and versatile, possessing strength, creativity, dribbling skills and a superb passing range.
Manchester United have a chequered history with Brazilian players; relative successes such as the da Silva twins are tempered by the memories of Kleberson, and to a lesser extent, Anderson. Fred, however, has the potential to be the greatest of the Brazilian bunch at United, and Red Devils fans will be hoping that their new man from the land of Joga Bonito can finally solve the midfield muddle at Old Trafford.