He was one of the summer’s hottest transfer properties. A veteran of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League campaign and a tough but stylish central midfielder, Fred had his pick of both Manchester clubs when the moment came to step up to football’s elite.
Just like with Alexis Sanchez, it was United who prevailed in their transfer tussle with neighbours City. And just like with Alexis, it is City who must now feel relieved they missed out on a player who has proven hopelessly ineffective at Old Trafford.
Where has Fred’s great English adventure gone wrong? And is there still time for the Brazilian to turn his United career around?
In fairness to Fred, he has not exactly been blessed with many opportunities to shine at his new club.
Under the eye of notoriously demanding manager Jose Mourinho, the 25-year-old from Belo Horizonte has started just six Premier League matches and, in the Champions League, the tournament in which he made his name, has racked up a mere 69 minutes of action, all of which came in an easy win over Young Boys.
The Brazil international’s lack of playing time must come as a surprise even to Mourinho, who effectively labelled his £52 million signing as the missing link in United’s midfield when he arrived at Old Trafford during the summer.
“Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba and even Ander Herrera are physical and strong players,” the Portuguese coach told reporters back in July.
“We think having a player like Fred in the squad – who is more technical, with more quality of passing in short spaces – he can maybe connect [with] the attacking players.”
Indeed, United’s first glimpses of Fred were overwhelmingly positive.
The Brazilian played a starring role in an otherwise underwhelming pre-season campaign, running the midfield in the International Champions Cup win over Real Madrid, impressing not only with his calm on the ball but with his willingness to look for the killer pass, thus keeping the Champions League winners on the back foot throughout.
Subsequent performances, however, have been almost uniformly disappointing, with the exception of a goalscoring turn against Wolves in an otherwise lacklustre draw.
Mourinho has preferred a midfield three of Pogba, Matic and Herrera for United’s biggest games. Even more gallingly for Fred, when Pogba was withdrawn from the crunch City derby due to illness, it was Fellaini who was sent on in the Frenchman’s place.
Fred, instead, remained an unused substitute as United were dismantled by their rivals, a result that makes a title challenge and even qualification for the Champions League look rather optimistic right now.
It is not the first time Mourinho’s track record with new signings has been questioned, of course. Alexis’ case is well known and bewildering, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan was chopped and changed at will despite an impressive start to life at United and he eventually left for Arsenal.
Victor Lindelof is another example. The Sweden international was considered one of Europe’s finest young defenders when he swapped Benfica for the Red Devils but took a seeming age to settle in, playing a small proportion of his club’s games in his debut season before finally earning a regular starting berth during the current campaign.
Does Fred simply have to bide his time like Lindelof? Will he be afforded the time and opportunities required to adjust to English football by a manager who has rather greater concerns right now than how any single member of his squad is faring?
Fred, at least, still has faith in his manager to steer him right.
“Mourinho is a top, top professional and every player likes to work with such a winner. I’m learning things from him, that’s for sure. He can be quite strict, but that’s part of his job,” Fred explained in an interview with Four Four Two.
“He’s also friendly and funny off the pitch, and jokes with us in the dressing room. Jose was crucial in my decision to join Manchester United and I’m grateful for his interest in my football.”
It is clear that, for the time being, Fred will not let the lack of playing time affect his positive outlook, either of United or his manager. Mourinho, for his part, has suggested that the player needs to work on his off-the-ball movement.
Fred, then, could yet become a great at Old Trafford. But there is no denying that his first months have been immensely frustrating, short change from a £52m signing heralded as a future idol when he walked through the doors at Old Trafford.