Southampton v Manchester United | Premier League | Sunday 22 August 2021
Reports of ‘McFred’ disappearance have been greatly exaggerated. After a summer of speculation that Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would use a new midfielder this season, his side started their 5-1 Matchday 1 win over Leeds United in familiar form. Scott McTominay and Fred have held deep midfield roles, taking over what has been one of the most discussed and controversial partnerships in modern football memory.
There were extenuating circumstances which may have contributed to the return of the “McFred” axis. With Marcus Rashford injured and summer arrival Jadon Sancho having only trained for four days with his new team-mates, United have found their wide options limited. This has led Paul Pogba to return to a role he played regularly last season, as a nominal left-winger who takes center stage when the opportunity presents itself. With Pogba in a purely attacking role and Bruno Fernandes running as a marauding No.10, it made sense for Solskjaer to field two starting players for the sake of balance.
With a full squad to choose from, it’s easy to see the wisdom behind United’s expected move to a 4-3-3. Fred and McTominay will join Nemanja Matic competing for the only remaining defensive midfielder spot, while Pogba, Fernandes and Donny van de Beek represent an embarrassment of wealth in the more advanced roles. In the latter’s case, it is hoped that by appointing two attacking midfielders, the Dutchman will see more first-team opportunities after a quiet first campaign at Old Trafford.
However, there are reasons to consider Solskjaer returning to the double pivot he fielded 28 times last season. First, the question of the depth of the team. With everyone in good shape, the midfield options look reasonably formidable, but a full squad to choose from is rarely the reality. An injury to one of the attacking players will leave little quality support, with other midfielders Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard more suited to number 10 or wide roles than a central location in midfield. Defensively, Matic is 33 and is no longer the force he once patrolled ahead of the bottom four. This leaves McTominay and Fred competing for the regular starting role at the base midfielder.
There’s a good reason neither Fred nor his regular midfielder have appropriated the anchor role, and it depends on their style of play. There is an argument to be made that the pair have come together. so often together because of their complementary skills. Fred’s speed and energy when breaking up play harmonizes with the physique and the Scotsman’s ability to move the ball forward on offense. However, there is a feeling that the pair share the work of a world-class midfielder. Had United brought in a better defensive midfielder over the summer, it would surely have spelled the end of “McFred” and eased the transition to 4-3-3.
Ties to midfield talents for United have not been lacking in this transfer window. Rumors of varying credibility have been spread about the moves of West Ham’s Declan Rice, Wolverhampton Wanderers deep playmaker Ruben Neves and wanted young Rennes Eduardo Camavinga. United’s failure to secure any of those signings, exacerbated by their inability to permanently sell one of their fringe players, means they lack an automatic choice in the defensive midfielder.
In an ideal world, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be looking to name Pogba and Fernandes at the center of his midfield most often this season. This would free up flank space for Sancho to make his mark at his new club and allow the club a plethora of attacking options once Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford return to compete with Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial for regular football. However, the question remains how effective Fred, McTominay or Matic will be as the only anchor in midfield. While new signing Raphael Varane will offer additional protection in defense, the feeling remains that Manchester United could be a midfielder far from a true title charge.