The Importance of Fred – Season Report 19/20

Tactical Analysis: The importance of Fred – Season report 19/20

by Varun Vasudevan

Tactical Analysis

There are many Manchester United players who divide opinion among the passionate fanbase. None more so than Brazilian midfielder Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, better known as Fred. After a torrid time under Jose Mourinho, Fred has found his feet under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and delivered some of his best performances in the first half of the 19/20 season before being shifted to a backup role after the return of Paul Pogba in the second half. From a failed transfer to Player of the year candidate to backup player, the last 18 months for Fred have been a whirlwind. The reality for the player is somewhere in between all these opinions. Let’s dive deeper to analyse Fred’s season, strengths and weaknesses and indulge in some conjecture over his Manchester United future.

Strengths & Weaknesses
We start with a simple analysis of what Fred brings to the team. The infographics below highlight Fred’s ranking of various statistics among all Premier League midfielders to have played 15 games or more over the 19/20 season. There are about 100 midfielders who fit this criteria.

We look at the defensive stats first since that’s been a huge part of Fred’s achievements this season and immediately we see that he ranks 8th, 2nd, 3rd and 5th for tackles won, pressures, steals (Number of times the squad gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure) and pass blocks respectively among Premier League midfielders this season. Additionally, he also ranks 6th for tackles in the defensive third and 2nd for steals in the defensive third. His defensive aura reduces in the middle third (ranking 11th for tackles and 6th for steals) while its almost non-existent in the attacking third (ranking 64th for tackles and 50th for steals) indicating much of his defensive work comes deeper than higher up the pitch. The reasons for this will be highlighted further when we discuss his tactical fitment. But the above table also points out a glaring weakness of Fred’s game. He ranks third in times dribbled past in the league suggesting that shielding the defence and positioning are big weaknesses. The amount of aggressive pressures he makes often lets opposition players slip by. It’s a catch-22 situation where the benefits of a successful pressure and opportunity to counter come at the cost of attackers getting past him.

Looking at the possession stats, we see positive rankings for successful dribbles, players dribbled past and carries (Number of times the player controlled the ball with their feet) indicating Fred’s strength as a dribbler. He is confident enough to make dashes with the ball after recovering them in midfield and a decent progressive distance (Total distance a player moved the ball towards the opponent’s goal) rank of 12th also indicates that most of these are purposeful vertical dashes towards goal. His pass target (Number of times a player was the target of an attempted pass) rank of 8th also indicates how the other United players have looked at him to carry the ball out of defence often. The big weakness here is the high dispossessed rank of 10th suggesting that often in these attempts he also loses the ball which is further confirmed with his miscontrols (Number of times a player failed when attempting to gain control of a ball) rank of 28th – suggesting that Fred isn’t the ‘safest’ option in midfield from a ball retention point of view. For a team that prioritizes keeping the ball this would prove to be an issue.

Finally, as we check the passing stats, there is a clear skew towards progressive passing rather than safe/short passing. Fred excels at purposeful passing ranking 8th best for passes into the final third, 6th for completed passes distance (Total distance, in yards, that completed passes have traveled in any direction), and 8th in progressive passes distance (Total distance that completed passes have traveled towards the opponent’s goal. Note: Passes away from opponent’s goal are counted as zero progressive yards) only being bested by pure attacking midfielders in these stats which is unique given the time he spends in his own third of the pitch while defending. He ranks 28th for short passes completed and 37th for short pass completion % indicating that he’s better at going long and direct instead of short and safe. His number of key passes are decent (rank 28) for his position while his zero assists statistic this season isn’t a huge surprise considering his defensive role.

To summarize the stats above, this is a midfielder who presses and wins the ball in his own third, progresses with the ball purposefully in the middle third and attempts and pulls off many direct passes into the attacking third – but all this comes at the cost of safe possession and control.

Tactical Fit
Our understanding of Fred will be further highlighted if we spend some time analysing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics for the season. Without diving too deep, (that can be a whole other article) it’s clear that Ole preferred to play on the counter in the first half of the season while going for a much more possession-oriented game in the second half of the season. The Norwegian made the best of what he had starting the season based on the strengths of his newly formed defence, pace of the attack and ball winning ability of his midfield. This was where Fred shined. The aim was to drop deep, absorb, press, steal, and play progressive passes to the front 4 who could then hit teams on the break. This was what Fred was good at. There was no pressure to keep possession or play safe. There was no playmaking burden placed on the Brazilian as he displayed his tenacity, energy and drive to consistently defend and initiate counter attacks at the cost of possession. By December, Fred was already a frontrunner for Manchester United’s Player of the year award.

But, it has to be said, he seemed like the best piece of a team that wasn’t doing all that well. While results came in big games where the counter approach suited United, it was games against the bottom half where the lack of creativity cost them heavily keeping them far from the top 4 where they aimed to be. Bruno’s arrival and Pogba’s return offered Solskjaer a great opportunity to change that.

Now armed with creativity in the middle of the park, Ole resorted to a possession based system. While the shape remained a 4-2-3-1 on paper it resembled the classic 4-3-3 possession-oriented shape in game. The perfect foil for a midfield containing Pogba and Bruno was Nemanja Matic. The Serbian, though aged, possesses a few things Fred doesnt – positioning, build up play and safety in passing. Using the same data and scope given earlier, Matic ranked 6th in passes completed and 8th in pass completion % while playing the 8th most passes into the final third. He was tailor-made to play the deepest role in a possession-based tactic. This system now meant Matic’s lack of aggression, pressing and progressive dribbling was not an issue. His ball retention, safety on the ball, positioning and shielding offered things Fred could not. 

 

The images show the average position of the players in two games picked out from both halves of the season. Earlier in the season against Bournemouth, the 4-2-3-1 shape is more prominent with Fred (#17) and Scott Mctominay (#39) shielding the back four as a pivot. The formation is skewed towards the left as Rashford remained the threat on the counter. In comparison the other image is from the game against Leicester towards the end of the season which clearly shows a deep-lying Matic (#31) giving Pogba (#6) and Bruno (#18) creative control at the center of the park. The attacking pattern and shape is much more uniformly distributed thanks to the possession and positional play of Matic.

As United blazed through an unbeaten trail of 14 games to clinch an important 3rd placed finish, Fred watched from the sidelines. And he would have watched knowing he doesn’t fit anymore. The few times Fred took to the pitch as a substitute during this run, the team’s ball retention dropped heavily as they ceded possession and invited pressure. One of these occasions cost the team 2 points against Southampton as the substitutes Fred and James couldn’t imitate the ball retention of Pogba and Greenwood. The FA cup semi-final saw Ole revert to a back five with Fred in midfield in an attempt to channel the counter-based successes from the first half of the season. But it backfired horribly as United failed to create anything of note and Fred had another poor outing. 

What does the Future hold?
United ended the league season on a hugely positive 3rd placed finish and three respectable, if not emphatic, semi-final finishes. It won’t be a big surprise if Fred isn’t as ecstatic as the others in these celebrations. If the possession-based tactic remains Ole’s blueprint for long-term success, the Brazilian has enough cause for worry. He is neither as creative as Pogba, nor as output-oriented as Bruno nor as safe and effective as Matic in possession. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say Fred now feels like a square peg in a round hole. Turning 27 this year, the opportunities to be a starter for a big club at his peak will only reduce from hereon, increasing the doom and gloom around his current situation.

But can a run of 20 games be that damning for a player? Probably, but if football has proven anything, it is that short-term judgements often remain just that. Fred has done enough this season to stay and get chances to prove himself. With Matic’s age and Pogba’s slightly-concerning injury patterns, Fred will find himself in Manchester United’s midfield a few more times for sure. Fred can improve on the things he lacks to prove useful in a possession-based system. It’s not unheard of for ball-winning midfielders to adapt and obtain a pro-possession orientation especially later in their career. Jordan Henderson comes to mind. The Englishman mostly operated as a ball-winner or box-to-box player for most of his career but has displayed unrivalled maturity and reliability in a deeper role in recent seasons under Jurgen Klopp. Nemanja Matic himself started as an attacking midfielder, then played as a ball-winning midfielder for large parts of his Chelsea career before his current stint as an efficient deep-lying playmaker at the age of 32.

Fred can take faith in these transformations and add a possession-oriented dimension to his game which most top teams demand in some way or the other. If Manchester United are going to improve as a team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leadership, it will require players like Fred to improve and be counted as well. Additionally, Fred can also take faith in the fact that he still remains United’s best option if a counter-based approach is needed. He had a good outing against Sevilla in the Europa semi-finals where the red devils’ adopted a more counter-pressing style of play, ending his personal season on a positive note. United are still some way off to dominating the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool in terms of possession and with Champions League teams to face from next season onwards, the chances of playing on the counter and relying on Fred’s strengths will never be too low.

A combination of these 2 factors can see Fred extend his United career and still be a contributing member of a grand new era under Solskjaer. All said and done, Fred has already shut up those who doubted him after the 18/19 season by standing tall as one of United’s best players in the 19/20 season. It won’t be a surprise if he shuts up the ones (like me) who doubt whether he can improve even further.

Marcus Rashford and Half-spaces

When Manchester United welcomed the Danish side FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford in 2016 for their second leg tie in the Europa League Round of 32, the then United manager, Louis van Gaal was down to bare bones in the attack department. Injuries to senior attacking players such as Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young meant the only striker fit enough to start was Anthony Martial. 18 year-old Marcus Rashford occupied a place on the bench, but an injury to Anthony Martial in the warmup meant that Marcus Rashford would make his full first team debut. The Englishman scored twice on his debut en route to a 5-1 win for Manchester United. Rashford also scored twice in his first full Premier League debut 3 days later against Arsenal and hasn’t looked back ever since. 

Marcus Rashford, when he first came into the side, was what could be regarded as an explosive striker. Running and going past defences with his blistering pace and dribbling, the 18 year-old was direct and took no prisoners. Rashford scored 7 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions in that breakthrough season, cementing his place in the first team for Manchester United that won the FA cup.

Then came Jose Mourinho and the Portugese never saw Rashford as his main no.9 and the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku in consecutive seasons only backed Mourinho’s claim. In the 2016/17 season, in a fully fit squad, Rashford usually played on the left although he did play as a striker whenever the main striker was injured. As time went by, it became largely evident that Marcus Rashford’s best position was playing on the left and not through the middle. 

Even though Mourinho found the position in which Rashford has since excelled, the Portugese was very shrewd in giving him minutes on the pitch. Rashford made more appearances from the bench rather than from the get-go. In the 2017/18 season, Rashford made 35 appearances in the Premier League but 18 of them were from the bench. He played only 1792 minutes in the whole campaign. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival in January 2018 resulted in Rashford dropping down the pecking order. 

Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford has truly begun to excel. Playing mainly from the left this season, the 22 year old has scored 17 goals in the Premier League, already his best ever goal scoring return and 10 more than compared to when he played on the left under Mourinho in the 2017/18 season. Not limited to goalscoring output, his xG per 90 has improved as well from 0.28 to 0.57. 

Both managers played him on the left wing, and both primarily preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation. So what has changed? How has his goal output improved so much in the same position?

Of course, one could argue that it’s nothing but a case of a young player maturing, and for some part, it is. But, Solskjaer has made a small tactical tweak to Rashford’s positioning in the build-up and link-up play which has made the majority of the difference. That being, Rashford being deployed into half-spaces instead of playing out wide on the left. That has made a difference in 3 aspects of his game.

1.Proximity to goal

Firstly, he is closer to the goal and the main striker, Anthony Martial. Under Mourinho, the closest player to the main striker was usually the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Jesse Lingard. Mourinho deployed Lingard to act as a secondary striker, linking up with Lukaku and finding spaces in and around the box. Solskjaer shifted the onus of the no.10 from scoring goals to more of a playmaking role. By shifting Rashford in the half-spaces, Ole has allowed him to act as a secondary striker. These are Marcus Rashford’s heatmaps for the 17/18 and the 19/20 season.

As it is evident to see, Rashford is occupying the Left sided half spaces a lot more as compared to 17/18 where he’s mostly occupying the wider areas. Being in these areas has allowed him to be closer to goal and Martial and his link-up with the Frenchman has been the cornerstone of many of the attacks that Manchester United have structured this season. 

Here, Martial occupies the striker position, Rashford tucks into the half-space to be closer to Martial. This enables Luke Shaw to get into the space left by Rashford and become an enticing passing option for Lindelof (on the ball) for a crossfield pass. 

Instead, Lindelof passes it to Mata on the right wing, who cuts in and crosses to Rashford, still occupying the half space. Rashford completes his far post run and scores past Tim Krul in the goal. 

Switch to another move, where Rashford occupying the half space and being close to Martial, helps the no.10 (Pereira in this case) drop deeper to get the ball and release the runners. In this case, Wan Bissaka receives the ball from Pereira, who makes a great forward run and crosses for Rashford who continues his same run in the left hand side half-space and scores. 

2.Positional interchange with striker

Secondly, Rashford operating the half space has allowed him to constantly interchange positions with Martial and the understanding between the duo has been one of the key reasons for both playing well this season. Their link-up was clear to see in the 3rd goal that Manchester United scored at Carrow road this season.   

3.Pressing centrally

Lastly, Rashford’s pressing awareness has improved a lot this season as well. He mainly presses in the half spaces, attempting to cut off the right sided centre back’s supply to the right back and the defensive mid. This forces the centre back to pass it back to his keeper or his defence partner. Even if the ball gets to the fullback or to the defensive mid, Rashford is quick to change direction and press depending on where the ball is played.

In this situation, Rashford presses Schar who looks to pass in the middle. He misplaces his pass which ends up to Greenwood, who darts ahead and scores a sensational goal. 

Jose Mourinho’s tactics didn’t allow Rashford to express himself. The Portugese has always associated himself with having a strong no.9 – A focal point whose hold up play, physical strength and ability to play in runners are the best traits. Rashford was never that player – far from it as he isn’t even a proper no.9. 

Another aspect which has had an effect on Rashford excelling is Solskjaer’s counter attacking set up. Under Mourinho, the two players exempted from tracking back and staying forward for counter attacks were the striker and the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard. Solskjaer’s set up while not having the ball is quite the opposite. He insists on the attacking midfielder dropping deeper and helping the midfield while the front 3, most recently Martial, Rashford and Greenwood stay forward for United to counter attack with blistering pace. 

It is no surprise that Jesse Lingard had his best season under Mourinho where the attacking midfielder had the role of a secondary striker and has struggled under Solskjaer due to the attacking midfielder having more playmaking duties. Similarly, Rashford has thrived in a system where he has been used as a secondary striker and been allowed to express himself more. 

Goal (Green)

Shot on post (yellow)

Saved shot (blue)

Blocked shot (purple)

Missed shot (red)

These are the shot maps of Marcus Rashford from the 17/18 season and the 19/20 season. It is clear to see that Rashford has matured a lot and is playing with real swagger and tenacity. 


Now, just allowing Marcus Rashford to operate in the half spaces isn’t the only reason for the improvement that the 22 year old has shown this season. Statistics show that Rashford is outperforming himself in almost every aspect of his game including passing, dribbling, shooting and pressing. This shows a real maturity in his game and how well Rashford is developing into becoming a complete player. This only bodes well for Manchester United going forward as the Englishman is going to be key for the rebuild that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club have planned.

All in all, it is fair to say that Marcus Rashford has come a long way since his debut in 2016 and he is constantly improving at each stage of his career. The 22 year-old still has a long way to go, but his work ethic and the way he has adapted to tactics over the years only suggest that the Englishman is well on his way to becoming a truly world-class player.