Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s pre-match press conference comments, before the key UCL tie against Villareal explaining the importance of Scott McTominay and Fred to United’s starting XI, have made fans questioning why McFred enjoys so much importance and preference in United’s pivot for a good part of 2.5 years (Most of Ole’s tenure). Especially coming off the back of a few unimpressive performances in September, the United manager’s selections and tactics have been questioned in recent weeks. But like most things in football, the answer isn’t black and white. United definitely have issues under Ole which are clearly linked to a lack of structures and processes, which gives rise to a lot of variation and extremities – and within this variation Fred and Scott are Ole’s go-to midfield men thanks to their ability to cope.
United’s major issue under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
It’s hard to pinpoint a singular issue but there is one overarching gap/criticism of Ole’s reign which, despite his amazing success in 2.5 years, prevents United from becoming elite. The issue under Ole is that the players aren’t being helped by the system/tactic. If they perform/cope, it’s not really because of the system, but despite it. United are not laying out clear patterns & processes to make things easier for the players during the game. For example, we have had build up issues for a while. Shaw being able to progress even after the build up structure being bad is him performing despite the system. He’s just that good dribbling and passing wise. It doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t get the required support. A player might play out of his skin & manage on a day or a new signing might come in & do better but it doesn’t change the fact that the existing system doesn’t facilitate.
A tactic has to leverage its players strengths & mitigate its player weaknesses. United aren’t doing that as well as they can under Ole. The summer window created an imbalance which has only opened us up more to the system inconsistency & inefficiency we always had. We now have more attacking players who have high ball-affinity & are left leaning & no holding progressive CM profile except Matic. But transfers only solve so much. We need more emphasized structures that put less pressure on the players. These patterns are what players fall back on when things don’t work out. This reduces the burden on individuals. The absence of these forces them to take matters into their own hands – an exaggeration of which especially in attack is what fans refer to as ‘individual brilliance.’
That’s not always a bad thing. Giving players freedom & promoting flair is good, but there’s a balance. The current United side, thanks to the composition of its current personnel, is on the wrong side of that balance. Against Aston Villa last week, the burden on individuals was clear. The drastic change this year could be down to the immense attacking talent at Ole’s display. The temptation to go direct or rely on the world-class qualities of the attackers (Eg. Bruno’s final ball + Ronaldo’s finishing) seems to be bypassing logical system rules.
The value of Scott McTominay and Fred
Where do McFred come in all of this? In a system as dynamic as this, which lacks structures and protection for its players, the players who have the best ability to cope become the natural picks. This is where Scott and Fred shine. Their physical and mental attributes alone form a huge reason for their preference. Both players regularly top the running charts for United, have good coverage of area, are naturally fit players who tirelessly do their jobs till full time and are usually available for selection 90% of the season. These aspects were confirmed by Ole in his recent presser before the Villareal UCL tie:
“The stats for them two [McTominay & Fred] together, we’ve had many good results. The energy and desire, I really like to have the two of them. I can trust them to give us what they’ve got. Fans will always have opinions, it’s easy to say who should be playing.”
The intensity and coverage that Ole needs in the chaotic environment that is United’s midfield can only be provided by Fred and Scott. Ole also refers to some ‘stats’ here. Let’s dive into that. There are some objective numbers backing McFred as well.
As you can see in the above viz, last season Fred won the ball back most for United. His ball winning stats are all in the top 10 percentile in Europe and he is by far United’s most important tool for winning the ball back so that we can play our game. When he’s not on the pitch, United sorely lack a player who can win the ball back quickly and efficiently.
In 21/22 so far, Fred’s per 90 defensive actions ranking (among players >2.5 90s played) reads:
3.6 Tackles Attempted: 1st
2.8 Tackles Won: 1st
27.1 Pressures: 1st
6.6 Successful pressures: 1st
12.1 Recoveries: 1st
Paints a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? Fred is immense for United off the ball.
Let’s also list down Scott’s contributions in the same way:
2.1 Tackles Attempted: 2nd
1.1 Tackles Won: 3rd
13.9 Pressures: 4th
2.9 Successful pressures: 8th
6.1 Recoveries: 11th
While not as intense or efficient as Fred, Scott’s value in the defensive department is clear.
So we know now Ole likes the intensity, consistency & mentality of the duo and the ‘stats’ he’s referring to back up their ball-winning ability on the pitch as well. The next question on your mind might be – But why do we need 2 ball-winners in midfield anyway? Why can’t we have 1 or 2 playmakers in the pivot instead?
The answer to this is straightforward – United have too many creators and scorers on the pitch in their 4-2-3-1. Bruno who plays CAM is one of Europe’s elite creators and for all practical purposes a key pass machine. He ensures high chance creation and final 3rd balls at the cost of losing the ball in possession thanks to ambitious passes and shots. Ahead of him, United have a star-studded cast of Ronaldo, Greenwood and Pogba and in rotation (for now) Cavani, Sancho and Rashford. Pogba guarantees more ball-playing talent and already leads the league for assists. Ronaldo and Greenwood are starting often thanks to their ability to finish the chances Pogba and Bruno create. The front 4 is packed with creativity and scoring to the limit. Some might say it’s beyond the limit and is hurting retention and safety since all 4 lose the ball a lot thanks to ambitious shooting and passing.
With this kind of setup and a lot of ball losses to deal with, the pivot essentially becomes a ball-recovery engine for the team. With the fullbacks often caught ahead on the flanks, the front 4 as attacking as they are and the CB pairing focussing on winning their duels to ensure they aren’t bypassed by opponent attackers, the pivot 2 are under unreal pressure to cover a lot of area in midfield, win the ball back and recycle it efficiently to the front 4 again. This creates a high ball-winning pressure which can only be satisfied by Fred and Scott. The below viz confirms the contributions in defending and progression from the midfield 3 options:
There is a reason Bruno-Fred-Scott is the preferred mid 3. They have the right balance of progression and ball-winning Ole wants. Matic’s lack of agility, coverage and defensive intensity mean that he can’t cope while VDB and Mata don’t offer as much progression or defending. The reason why Pogba doesn’t make the pivot is also visible here. Defensively he can’t cope, which Ole has learnt through a few experiments. But given Pogba’s quality, Ole has now turned to use him as a winger. McFred becomes the default pivot. All of this is also indicative of the lack of good options in midfield which is a good argument. We felt United needed a holding playmaker CM this summer and are badly ill-equipped without one (Read our CM shortlist here). But let’s keep that aside for now and work with what we have.
Even with the defensive traits of McFred, the midfield is barely being dominated by them which is one of the main reasons for United’s recent form. Until last year, McFred somehow coped with these system gaps, but this year with the addition of Ronaldo and the higher attacking (read possession losing) quotient of the front 4, the pressure on the pivot and CB pairing in transitions is even more intense leading to some very open games (Like West Ham and Aston Villa) where possession retention and circulation were tough and a lot of time and energy of the squad was spent in winning the ball back and competing in 50-50s.
What is the way forward?
So far, we have deduced the following:
- United’s setup lacks structure and hard-coded processes
- In such a volatile setup, with 4 attackers to carry, the pivot needs to be a consistent ball-winning machine
- Fred & Scott are the best ball-winners and preferred pivot choice as a result
- Even this might not be ideal and seems like too much to manage in 21/22
We circle back to the lack of processes to ponder over solutions. As mentioned above, a tactic should mitigate player weaknesses but United don’t provide any such cover for the pivot or backline. For example, Fred’s weaknesses are his poor first touch and affinity to lunge forward instead of holding position. These haven’t been covered for. Either due to a lack of coaching or players not being receptive to coaching, both continue to be an issue in Fred’s game. His excellent ball-winning and underrated progression are masked by those rare but critical moments when he loses the ball under pressure in a deep area or loses the 50-50 in a transition. A system that allows him more time on the ball or more protection in transitions would be beneficial.
Which then brings us to another question – Why can’t the system change enough to facilitate Pogba or Matic in the pivot? For all theoretical purposes, it can. One can argue that their progression traits (as shown in the viz above) are valuable enough to justify playing them in midfield. But they then require a system that covers for their defensive weaknesses. If the need to run around intensely to win the ball is reduced, Matic and Pogba can start – and this is clear since Ole uses them against low blocks (like Newcastle recently) to good effect where that need is minimal. But the lack of set patterns and processes means covering for deficiencies isn’t easy. In a nutshell, the message from Ole and his coaching team seems to be – ‘We can’t cover for your weaknesses, so be as consistent and well-rounded as possible.’ This leads to him picking/wanting players who can do most things without having any glaring weaknesses in their game. Which isn’t a sustainable approach to building a tactic or team.
The same effect was seen with the CB pairing. United leave themselves open on transitions so often, that the CBs face a lot more duels than they should. The expectation then becomes – winning duels consistently and efficiently. Varane to Lindelof was an upgrade with the aim of increasing that duel winning rate (which Lindelof couldn’t maximize due to being average in aerial duels). But the fact that the CB pair face a lot of duels in transition hasn’t changed. No matter how good Varane and Maguire are (and they are pretty good as we explain here) , exposing them repeatedly will cause a few to get through and those few goals are usually the difference between trophies and losses.
It’s the same for the pivot. No matter how good Fred and Scott are at ball-winning, a system that forces them into so many defensive actions is probably not a title-winning one anyway. In short, McFred are the best at what they do and deserve to start for that reason, but for United to win titles, no midfielder should probably be doing what they do in the first place. It’s not a complaint against them, it’s a complaint against the tactic under Ole. And upgrading every position (like Varane for Lindelof or Scott for a new CM) can only take you so far at the end of the day. If the root issues aren’t tackled, no player can perform to his best.
A good example is Chelsea under Tuchel. They are defensively solid without the need to get into so many duels. Tuchel has covered for his player’s weaknesses and given them a system to fall back on, which limits the situations they struggle in considerably. The best example is Jorginho, who was always criticized for not being defensively strong. But, like Matic, his progression and playmaking was always exceptional. In a system where he isn’t forced into defensive actions regularly and has time on the ball to do what he does best, he is a gem. And that’s what Tuchel has provided him – to the point of success of Ballon Dor shouts.
In summary, Ole is justified in starting McFred. His comments on their intensity and stats are right. They are the best fit for the system United currently play with. But the larger question is whether this is the path for the future – whether repeating this process or even slightly improving on it can get United to really control transitions, dominate midfield, create efficiently, win consistently and lift the trophies the Old Trafford faithfuls have been dreaming of. That’s a question Ole has to think much harder about than his recent presser responses.