“There was a three or four-minute spell in the first half tonight where everything went wrong for Fred but he never gives in, he’s got that enthusiasm to play and go again.”
That was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaking after Manchester United’s win against AC Milan in the San Siro last month, just three days before Fred had an even longer spell when everything went wrong for him.
His performance against Leicester City in the FA Cup quarter-final, particularly in the first half, was calamitous. He was responsible for the first goal United conceded and gave the ball away constantly, it was an afternoon to forget.
If we’re being critical, Fred needs to cut out those horror spells to truly make it at Manchester United, but in the way he responds to adversity we know he will more than get the chances to do just that.
Fred has now played 112 games for United and while that might be 100 too many for his critics, the 28-year-old remains a valuable part of Solskjaer’s increasingly assured side.
The Brazilian still has a habit of throwing in a poor game and his passing can still be still wayward, but he has improved considerably since looking lost in English football in his first season at Old Trafford.
After his display at the King Power Stadium there was an argument for him to be dropped for the visit of Brighton to Old Trafford. Instead, he responded with a polished performance against the Seagulls before producing one of his best displays in United colours against Tottenham this weekend.
That ability to never give in, as Solskjaer mentioned in Milan, is why he is such a key player in this team. He might not be a natural defensive midfielder, but Fred is energetic and tenacious, as a record of 20 yellow cards in 87 games since the start of last season shows. He has character by the truck full, a trait Solskjaer values, and he’s shown plenty of it against Brighton and Tottenham.
Fred struggled to adapt to English football in his first season at United, regularly taking too many touches in a congested midfield.
After Solskjaer’s appointment Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick, who knows what it takes to thrive as a midfielder in the Premier League, worked on speeding his game up, on turning a three-or-four touch player into a one-touch player and someone who can pick a forward pass as well as a sideways one. The fruits of that labour could be seen in his goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
While his fourth goal in those 112 games took the headlines, his involvement in the build-up was far more eye-catching. First, he fired a crisp pass into the feet of Bruno Fernandes and moved on to a return, taking Giovanni Lo Celso out of the game. Then came a first-time pass into Marcus Rashford before Fred again moved on to the return and slipped a lovely left-footed pass into Edinson Cavani.
When Cavani’s shot was saved by Hugo Lloris, Fred was on hand to score the rebound. It was a goal he’d deserved. In the build-up, he took four touches, three of which were forward passes that advanced United closer to the Tottenham penalty area. It was everything his critics say he can’t do.
It’s probably something Fred needs to do more often, but here was evidence that he can be a player who can break defensive lines with his passing and he can get forward to contribute to the United attack.
The Brazilian will be feeling more at home in this United squad since the arrival of fellow countryman Alex Telles and Portuguese speaker Fernandes. The three have formed a close bond in the squad and their energy around Carrington can be infectious.
Fred needed to overcome the language barrier in his first season and while his English has improved, having some native speakers in the squad he is now close to has helped, as has coach Martyn Pert’s ability to speak Portuguese.
When discussing the midfielder Solskjaer has always praised his humility and perseverance. Fred knew his first season had been a nightmare, but he knuckled down to improve rather than accepting English football wasn’t for him.
There are still areas of his game that can be improved, but his influence in the move that led to his goal in North London is an example that he’s willing to listen and learn. That, and the character he’s shown at the club so far, show why he’s so highly valued by Solskjaer.