The Manchester United line-up on Tuesday was another significant sign this is very much Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad: David de Gea, Victor Lindelof, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have signed new contracts on his watch and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek, Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani are Solskjaer signings.
It extended to the substitutes: Nemanja Matic and Axel Tuanzebe inked renewals, Daniel James was Solskjaer’s first recruit and Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood are two of his 11 academy debutants. The odd one out is Fred yet he is as certain to start major matches as De Gea, Maguire and Fernandes.
Solskjaer selected started Fred in all six of United’s post-deadline day Premier League fixtures and, bar an aberration against Arsenal where his position was needlessly tweaked, Fred has reinforced his importance after an excellent 2019-20.
Fred’s form last season was bookended by the start and end of Paul Pogba’s near nine-month lay-off with ankle injuries. Pogba’s ankle is troubling him again though, unlike the majority of players who are not playing, his stock is not rising.
Fernandes, Fred, Donny van de Beek and Scott McTominay are all preferred picks ahead of Pogba. That might change during an arduous December schedule of nine fixtures in 31 days and the cold snap is bound to claim casualties, but maybe not Fred. The Brazilian has not sustained an injury since June 2018 and only he and Maguire started all eight league meetings between December 1 and January 1 last season.
Fred, 27, is approaching the midway point of his five-year contract and United have a one-year option. Fred is effectively tied to United until 2024 – when he will be 31 – and there is little need in rushing to put him on a contract as long as Maguire, Fernandes and Van de Beek.
United have been derided for their contract strategy since the sudden and excessive paperwork gifted to Nani two months into Ed Woodward’s executive vice-chairman tenure in September 2013. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo could have been released by now but instead rival the revered receptionist Kath Phipps for the most time spent at Carrington.
According to a football finance source, since United appointed Cliff Baty as their chief financial officer in 2016 the club has doled out deals to maintain asset value of players on their balance sheet. All that has done is fatten up the wage bill to obese proportions but it does not entirely rule out negotiations with players who have had their head turned (Pogba), are undeserving (Eric Bailly) or seemingly surplus (Jesse Lingard). Timothy Fosu-Mensah has started four games in three-and-a-half years but been offered new terms.
For other clubs, a contract is agreed with a player solely to inflate their valuation and Fernandes moved to United two months after receiving a salary hike at Sporting Lisbon. Jorge Mendes had already touched base promising a transfer in the New Year after Tottenham’s intermediaries failed to close a summer deal and Sporting could eventually pocket €80million for Fernandes.
That tactic has not recently worked with United, who sold a 30-year-old Andy Cole at an impressive profit to Blackburn for £7.6m 10 months after he signed a four-year agreement in 2001. Cristiano Ronaldo became the most expensive footballer on the planet two years into a five-year deal yet United pined for his return almost as soon as he left.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge or reward Fred when others less deserving have been. Lindelof’s agent Hasan Cetinkaya panicked United into closing a five-year contract last year following some suspect ‘interest’ from Barcelona. Lindelof was United’s most consistent performer in 2018-19 though his improvement was undermined by the club’s worst defensive season in 40 years.
Lindelof, De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire and Martial were the only players who started more often than Fred last season and all five have posed in the Carrington press room with pen and paper since Fred became a red in June 2018. So have Jones, Chris Smalling and Andreas Pereira.
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Manchester United returned to winning ways in the Champions League with a 4-1 victory over Istanbul Basaksehir at Old Trafford.
Bruno Fernandes’ brace set Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side on course for a third successive win, with Marcus Rashford and Daniel James also on the scoresheet.
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Despite his outgoings list consisting almost entirely of players in their 30th year or already in their 30s, Solskjaer has come to embrace experience in recruiting 30-something strikers Odion Ighalo and Edinson Cavani, while Nemanja Matic was a month shy of his 32nd birthday when he donned a blazer and pocket square for his contract signing in July.
Fred’s plus-one takes him into his 32nd year and he is very much a Solskjaer player.