Tracing the thinking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer through his Manchester United team selections this season it is clear a line in the sand was drawn at half-time of the Tottenham horror show at Old Trafford at the start of October.
United were a man down and 4-1 down to Spurs that bleak Sunday and at half-time nobody was entertaining thoughts of winning the game. Instead, Solskjaer turned to Scott McTominay and Fred to try and limit the damage, with United eventually beaten 6-1.
It marked something of a turning point, with Solskjaer abandoning a more progressive midfield for a bit more stability and it’s worked well since, although there was a glimpse of ambition once more in midweek when Donny van de Beek filled one of the deeper roles.
There’s no doubt who Solskjaer sees as his ultimate firefighter though, the bundle of energy he has turned to in a crisis: Fred. It’s quite the transformation for the Brazilian, whose Old Trafford career looked to be over before it had even begun under Mourinho.
The former Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder was probably a little unfortunate to find himself on the bench when last season resumed in June. He had started six in a row before lockdown and when he started at Tottenham on June 19 it was the 22nd successive start he had made in the Premier League.
But that streak ended the very next game and the manner of United’s 3-0 win over Sheffield United, with Paul Pogba back in the side and flanked by Nemanja Matic, meant there was no looking back. Fred wouldn’t start any of the final eight Premier League fixtures and he didn’t start any of the first three this season either.
As a crisis loomed though it was Fred that Solskjaer turned to and he’s unlikely to be disappearing from United’s midfield anytime soon. He’s started seven of the eight games since the Tottenham trouncing, the only game he didn’t start was probably United’s second worst performance of the season in losing 2-1 to Istanbul Basaksehir.
It might be to the 27-year-old’s benefit that he isn’t tainted by association with either performance but there can’t be many United players who have a better record than Fred this season. He’s started 10 games, of which United have won eight, drawn one and lost one (against Arsenal at Old Trafford). It’s a team game, but that record as an individual has to mean something.
Fred has helped give United’s midfield a little more balance and he certainly adds energy. He is the best presser in that midfield and while he might not be a natural defensive midfielder, it’s a side of the game that is improving all the time.
Now the challenge for the Brazilian is to maintain and improve these levels of performance. He can feel he was hard done to when he was dropped last season but there should be no repeat now.
The difficulties of his first season seem a long time ago. Fred has emerged as one of Solskjaer’s most trusted lieutenants when times of crisis have been threatening to engulf United.