It has been a summer window that has taken many by surprise around Manchester United.
While pundits and supporters highlighted the need for additions in positions like left-back, centre-back and right-wing, amid interest in Jadon Sancho and others, United took a different tack. They signed in a position where they already looked fairly strong, bolstering their midfield with the addition of Donny van de Beek from Ajax.
That is not to say Van de Beek is a bad signing. The opposite may be truer, in fact, given United only paid an up-front fee of £35million, which represented good value for money compared to two of their other targets, in Jack Grealish and James Maddison.
But Van de Beek comes into a crowded area at Old Trafford, whatever position in which you bracket him. He can play as a more conventional central midfielder or as a No.10, with United boasting Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Fred as his competition across those two roles.
The situation with Fred is arguably the most intriguing of those. The Brazilian was immediately linked with an exit from United, as the news emerged that Van de Beek was close to agreeing his deal to join Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. It was suggested Galatasaray would take Fred on loan, though MEN Sport understands United are not entertaining that idea.
Fred himself addressed those rumours and insisted his desire was to build on a very positive second season at United, following a £52million transfer from Shakhtar Donestk in summer 2018.
“I want to stay here – that’s my desire,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. As I’ve always said, I want to be an important player and win trophies for this club.”
It was refreshing to hear, even if Fred’s answer to the inevitable Van de Beek question was a little more clichéd, as he lauded the extra ‘competition for places’ at Old Trafford.
“It means we’re getting stronger and that’s good for everyone at United,” he said when asked if he felt threatened by the Dutchman’s arrival.
“We need more players for this season because it will be even more demanding: the calendar is crammed and we need a strong squad to compete for every title. When you play at a big club, there will always be competition – I’m used to it. It’s been like that from day one at United.”
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Part of what Fred said is correct, of course. United will be competing on four fronts in an unprecedented season this term, and won’t have the luxury of fielding a weakened side in European football like they did in 2019/20. The Champions League will call for all that strength in depth, though Fred will feel he is up to the challenge in all competitions.
The reality may be that Van de Beek’s arrival forces Fred to convert himself into a full-time defensive midfielder. That area would appear to boast slightly less depth than the more attacking midfield positions in Solskjaer’s squad.
He will have Matic and McTominay to fend off for a regular spot. And after a period in the middle of last season when the 27-year-old stood up and took responsibility while Pogba and McTominay were injured — before Fernandes had arrived — Fred will back himself to get the nod more often than not. That role is more about tackling, intercepting and keeping it simple in terms of passing, with Fred perhaps needing to rein in his more attacking instincts.
United have the weapons further up the field, but they need Fred’s energy and discipline in a key role this season. He must adapt.