From Almost 'A Joke' to Key Man: How Fred Saved His Manchester United Career

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IApril 3, 2020

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Fred of Manchester United celebrates after the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on March 08, 2020 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Last year, Gilberto Silva packed his things and returned to London. The former Arsenal midfielder has two children finishing their studies at an international school in the city, but he was also driven by the desire, in his own words, to be in a more central part of the football world.

Having lived in London for six years between 2002 and 2008, the move was a relatively smooth one for the Brazilian FIFA World Cup winner and has helped him adjust to the demands of his new career as a football advisor.

Now, at least twice a month, Gilberto heads to the north west to meet one of his clients, Manchester United's Fred, to catch-up and also, as he puts it, to brainstorm.

The two of them had plenty to discuss during Fred's first year at Old Trafford—and much of it more negative than they would have liked.  

Unable to make an impression for the Red Devils following his arrival from Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer of 2018, Fred became a regular target for ridicule and blame. 

Club legends such as Gary Neville and Roy Keane took aim at the 27-year-old, questioning his usefulness, while Gilberto's former Arsenal team-mate Martin Keown went even further, saying it was "almost becoming a joke" whenever the £52 million man got on the ball. 

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United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer compared Fred's situation with those of former South American stars Diego Forlan and Juan Sebastian Veron, whose spells at the club were not particularly regarded as successes.

It felt almost impossible for Fred to turn around his United career.

After such a turbulent debut season in the Premier League, he needed to shift the narrative quickly in order to avoid following in the footsteps of compatriots like Kleberson and Rodrigo Possebon, who struggled to shine at Old Trafford.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Fred of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 27, 2018 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

"He needed to show everyone that the Fred who impressed in his last season with Shakhtar was still there," Gilberto tells Bleacher Report.

Fred helped the Ukrainians reach the UEFA Champions League knockout stages, was outstanding in victories over Manchester City and Napoli, and had Pep Guardiola chasing his signature for months. Ultimately, his superb form convinced United to snatch him from the clutches of their bitter rivals and make him the fifth-most expensive footballer in their history.

It took him a while, but it finally appears the No. 17 has been able to replicate those Shakhtar displays on a consistent basis, with Fred establishing himself as one of United's standout players this campaign.

"In the beginning, I think that he struggled a bit with the physical aspect of the English game," Gilberto says. "We already expected it; other players had gone through the same, so we discussed what to do about that.

"Amongst other things, we spoke to the club on how to strengthen his build. Our intention was never to turn him into a muscular midfielder, of course, but to make sure he was better prepared. We wanted him to reach the same level that we understood had taken him to Old Trafford, the one he showcased with Shakhtar.

"That talent did not just disappear after his first campaign with United."

There seems to be little doubt that Fred has hit his stride this term; he has become a big player, with standout performances against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City this campaign.

TOPSHOT - Manchester United's Brazilian midfielder Fred (L) vies with Liverpool's Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum (R) during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west E
OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

"I would go even further and say that this is actually an improved version of him. He's playing for one of the world's biggest clubs, with much bigger pressure and expectations," adds Gilberto.

"When he was criticised by some former players, we had a conversation about it. First of all, I told him to look into their analysis. What's their criteria? Why are they making those comments? Do they make any sense? We obviously do our own evaluation, too, every player does it—he knows if he's playing well, if he's not. He doesn't live in a bubble.

"He respects everybody's opinion and naturally takes them as lessons. He's fully aware of what he's doing, what he needs to adjust. He's now totally confident, though. I'm sure that this is the Fred fans were hoping to see at United."

Fred's confidence has always been an essential part of his make-up, but his morale hit rock bottom under Jose Mourinho.

For unknown reasons, the Portuguese boss acted as if he had never wanted the Brazil international, even though he had sent him text messages during the negotiations, luring him from City and saying that he would regularly feature alongside Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in United's midfield.

That promise failed to materialise, however, and the player found himself marginalised. By the end of the season, despite Mourinho's dismissal and Solskjaer's appointment in December, he remained on the sidelines.

Manchester United's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho (R) gestures with Manchester United's Brazilian midfielder Fred during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west En
OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

"People ask me what changed, but we haven't done any magic here," Gilberto says. "He just needed to play more often, to start six, seven, 10 consecutive games, so he could find his balance and have everyone judge him fairly. He received some harsh criticism."

Despite his struggles, Fred was largely quiet and managed to stay away from any controversy—with one notable exception. 

When Fred welcomed a famous Brazilian football pundit, Ale Oliveira, to his home, he was unbelievably honest about United's dressing room.

At the time, he made some controversial remarks, questioning the togetherness of the team and suggesting not everyone was on the same page.

"What do United need to improve? Many things," he told Brazilian YouTube channel De Sola in January. He continued:

"We need to sort out midfield; we are missing a little creativity there. As a group, we need to improve in everything. Every group has some arguing here and there, a little vanity, most of the group have it—our team has a lot of it. We have to stop that, we have to stop talking and start running on the pitch.

"When everyone has the same objective, we start moving forward. But when one just player wants to play well and another wants to score a goal by himself, it's difficult to go forward."

Asked about those claims, Solskjaer played them down, insisting there was no problem inside the squad.

"I don't know how to interpret what he said, but I've got no issues at all, and I've got no issues with the group doing everything for each other," the Norwegian responded during a press conference in mid-February.

A smiling, cheerful figure, the man from Venda Nova, in the Greater Belo Horizonte area, is usually someone of bland quotes. He has typically canned sentences and is not exactly known for speaking his mind freely.

Despite those comments, Fred did have allies at United's Carrington training ground who helped him to pick up his form.

In his daily work, he has had the support of several people, including one of Solskjaer's right-hand men, Martyn Pert, a strength and conditioning coach who had previously travelled through South America and joined United in October.

"[Fred] struggled a bit with the language last season, but with Martyn coming in, he's fluent in Portuguese, so it's easier for them to communicate," Solksjaer said.

Though they never shared a locker room at Shakhtar, City rival Fernandinho also came to his aid after witnessing his difficult start to life in Manchester.

The 34-year-old stepped forward at his lowest moment with the sort of attitude that has unsurprisingly earned him the reputation as the stalwart of the Premier League's Brazilian community in the area. Fred has already publicly thanked his fellow countryman for his help.


      

Fred is used to adapting. When he arrived at Old Trafford, some even speculated that he had come to fill the No. 10 void United had been struggling with since last season.

However, the closest he ever got to being an actual playmaker was when he started making waves in Brazil as a youngster. Back then, he was represented by Roberto de Assis, Ronaldinho's brother, and even received some tips from the Brazilian superstar himself. But that was pretty much it.

Fred during his Shakhtar days
Fred during his Shakhtar daysMaurizio Lagana/Getty Images

"He usually played as a left-winger," Franck Henouda, the French-Algerian businessman who took him to Shakhtar, tells B/R.

Henouda has worked as the Ukrainian club's emissary in Brazil for almost two decades, having overseen throughout that time, he estimates, 17 transfers. Along with legendary Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, he was the mastermind behind the Brazilian empire that was built in Donetsk.

He was never in doubt about Fred's potential.

"I still remember when Lucescu called me and asked for a young talented No. 8, a box-to-box-like midfielder, but not too expensive," Henouda recalls. "Back then, Fred featured in a more advanced role for Internacional. Even so, I mentioned his name to Lucescu, 'I have this boy, he's very promising, but he doesn't play in the position you want. You would have to push him further back.' He didn't see it as a problem.

"I also had two other players on my list—Corinthians' Willian Arao and Athletico Paranaense's Hernani—but after watching some videos, Lucescu decided we should go after Fred. It was a tricky negotiation.

"When we finally reached a deal with Inter, we went out for dinner, and I explained to Fred that the idea was to move him slightly backwards on the pitch. We had already successfully done that to Fernandinho, and so he was keen from the first moment. He was an immediate hit at Shakhtar.

"That's why I struggled to understand when I saw some pundits asking, 'Have United made a mistake with Fred?'

"I've known him for a long timeit was just a matter of adapting his game, the Premier League is a whole different world when compared to the Ukrainian league. But he has a strong character; he's not like some Brazilians who, at the first sign of a problem, rush back home. He's now United's most important pieceeverything goes through him. He's a crack."

United fans might not go that far in their praise of Fred just yet, but opinions on the Brazilian are shifting as he keeps rising to challenges presented to him.

Despite Fred's early struggles, cutting short his spell at Old Trafford was never an option for a player nicknamed "Pastor" because of his religious posts on social media.

He has never lost faith in himself.

           

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves.

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