With modern football’s greatest managerial rivalry integrating into the geographical divide that should be at the very top of English football right now, few derbies are laced with as many intricate, overlapping subplots as the Manchester edition.
Whether you focus on the men in the dugouts, the polarised philosophies and styles of both teams, the money spent constructing them or the clubs’ respective business off the pitch, there are so many angles to put under the microscope whenever we enter the week-long countdown to Manchester City vs Manchester United.
Summer signing Fred should have been one of those, and perhaps even the most prominent, ahead of Sunday’s 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium. City were close to acquiring the Brazilian from Shakhtar Donetsk back in January as they continued their search for Fernandinho’s understudy-come-rightful-successor, only to get cold feet and turn their attentions elsewhere. United then picked up the pieces in the summer with a swoop that served as a swipe at their rivals, in a bid to find a potential solution to their own long-term concerns in midfield.
Fred the Red, as he was quickly monikered, was billed as the platform to allow Paul Pogba to fully thrive, in the same way that City had once identified him as the new anchor for Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to spring attacks from.
But fast forward six months from a £52million transfer that inevitably caught the attention of both sides of Manchester, and rather than Fred being centre stage for the first Manchester Derby of his Premier League career, the 11-cap midfielder couldn’t even get a spot in the chorus. He spent Sunday’s game watching on from the sidelines as one of Jose Mourinho’s unused substitutes, while United put in one of their most apathetic derby displays in recent memory.
This wasn’t an increasingly common Mourinho starting XI snub either; few were surprised or even noticed Fred hadn’t made it onto the pitch at the Etihad Stadium. He’s so far managed starts in just half of United’s Premier League games this season, was hooked off early in four of those and barring a goal in a disappointing 1-1 draw with Wolves has struggled to impress throughout.
Far from a unique midfield talent akin to Fernandinho, capable of quickly breaking up play before distributing the ball with offensive intent, Fred’s looked decisively ordinary if not underwhelmingly clumsy and out of sync with what’s going on around him.
And thus, the case of Fred becomes even more curious, because his performances have been so far removed from his preceding reputation, from the countless snippets of endorsement that previewed his arrival in Manchester, and from what he’d often produced for Shakhtar in the Champions League.
This is the same player who ranked 11th for tackles per match out of all central midfielders in Europe’s top competition last season (to play more than three games) and third for successful dribbles. In one outing against eventual semi-finalists Roma, he was the best player on the pitch by a country mile.
Which in turn makes City’s decision to pull out of a deal for Fred all the more intriguing. Did they simply find a more suitable alternative in summer target Jorginho, who eventually followed Maurizio Sarri to Chelsea instead, or did they see something in the South American that’s now fully materialising at Manchester United?
Adapting has been a problem for him; ironically, and perhaps because he was initially expected to move to the Etihad Stadium instead, recent reports from The Metro have revealed Fernandinho is in fact the 25-year-old’s closest friend in Manchester.
That can’t be an easy situation, especially as Fred suffers from a weak grasp of English and joined United at pretty much the worst possible time. There aren’t too many examples of a new signing excelling in a team that’s falling apart at the seams and the midfielder has inevitably been caught up in the constant turmoil at Old Trafford.
Even during his first pre-season with the Red Devils, Mourinho was busy criticising the club’s transfer policy rather than focusing on the acquisitions Ed Woodward had made, Fred being the most expensive of those, and Sunday’s humbling loss against City epitomised how United’s campaign proper has panned out since then.
United’s struggle for form has only further amplified Fred’s lack of familiarity with his team-mates and English football. Throw in recovery from the World Cup in Russia, and circumstances certainly haven’t been kind to the former Shakhtar star.
But even so, something about Fred just doesn’t feel right. Usually a tough start for a new signing contains traces of potential brilliance and flickers of better times ahead, but none of the characteristics attributed to Fred – his incisive dribbles, his crunching tackles, his driven passes and his all-round capacity to rapidly turn defence into attack – have been particularly evident.
Perhaps Mourinho’s tactics have played a part, perhaps he simply isn’t jelling as well with Pogba as everybody expected, but right now Fred feels far more like the next Kleberson or Anderson than Fernandinho. Fred the Red is more Fred the Dead, or at the very least Fred the Unready for life at United.
Manchester City’s decision to swerve in January now seems like a masterstroke – the idea of Fred clumsily trying to sweep up behind their five-man attack is almost laughable – but do you think the summer signing will eventually come good, or end up being a costly dud for the Red Devils?
Let us know by voting below…