Fred and the long road to Manchester United

While Paul Pogba’s return to full fitness is attracting most of the attention at Manchester United and Bruno Fernandes is in the spotlight after a magnificent start at Old Trafford, Fred remains determined to keep thriving as much as he did before he had his breakout moment halted by the suspension of football. The Brazilian’s unexpected charge to cult status has seen him go from the verge of becoming a £52 million flop to perhaps the most solid and consistent member of the Red Devils squad this season.

Following a stop-start first campaign in English football from 2018-19, where he was restricted to just 25 appearances – fewer than half of United’s 53 matches – and endured the bitter taste of not even making the squad for some games, the 27-year-old has remarkably turned his United career around. Only captain Harry Maguire has more appearances for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team in all competition this season – with 42 compared to Fred’s 40.

Having already surpassed last term’s total number of displays, goals and assists, Fred has grown into his role in the side, not only defending robustly but also pushing forward in his preferred position as a second central midfielder. Prior to the postponement of the season, Solskjaer had Fred as one of the first names on the team sheet throughout a spell where United picked up great momentum in what has now been a run extended to 12 games unbeaten following their 1-1 draw at Tottenham.

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A master in the centre of the park has been a pivotal figure in Fred’s successful journey in overcoming a difficult start to life in the Premier League. World Cup winner, an Invincible with Arsenal and one of the most successful Brazilians of all time in English football history: Gilberto Silva

Now Fred’s agent, Gilberto remembers the long conversations he had with his client throughout a tough period of transition, following a big-money move from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018.

“He was signed with the status of a Brazilian international and joined the club straight after representing our country in the Russia World Cup finals, though he got injured and didn’t play”, Silva tells The Independent. “So, there was a huge expectation on him and he had to handle too much information at once amid his move to the most competitive league in the world, which is much tougher than the standards he was used to in Ukraine for the previous five years.

“He had to deal with language barriers, a new culture, his first baby on the way, plus a managerial change. And obviously the lack of matches in sequence did not help him.

“My role was to listen to him, mainly when he was quite upset for often being on the bench or even out of the match squad and wanted to get things off his chest, and try to shift his mindset from frustration to the burning ambition he has always had throughout his career.

“Having already been in his shoes was key to understand his feelings. And I told him, ‘I get why you are gutted, but how do you intend to react?’. I kept asking him questions to make him think things through, to have a clear understanding of his situation.

“And he realised by himself what he should do. I never told him what to do, he came up with the answers throughout the countless calls we had and his improvement is totally down to his determination and persistence”.

Fred enduring a dismal start drew comparisons to Kleberson, the Brazilian midfielder who arrived at Old Trafford in 2003. The former United star, who played alongside Solskjaer and struggled throughout two years under Sir Alex Ferguson, has identified how Fred has managed to better adjust in order to live up to expectations.

“From my point of view, Fred understood that he had to change his way of playing to succeed at United,” Kleberson, now assistant manager of Philadelphia Union’s U19s, tells The Independent.

“I don’t know if the idea came from him or Solskjaer but he started to play in a more defensive role in comparison to the further forward position he used to play under Jose Mourinho. With that he started to play in a simpler style, got his confidence back, and was able to show the quality he has always had with great passing in the build-up.

“Back in my day at the club, it was the opposite. I remember Ferguson playing me like a second striker only behind Van Nistelrooy. Also, unfortunately I had a few injuries that did not help me. After every injury, a long recovery process, I was under pressure to have to perform way better than United legends such as Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Nicky Butt, who had already been at the club for many years, to try and be a contender for a place in the team.

“In Fred’s case, though, he depended much more on him and didn’t have those big shadows behind him every time he stepped into the pitch as I had back in the day. He could rely more on his self-confidence to turn things around and that is exactly what he did. Well done to him, it was utterly deserved”.

Now, nearly 25 months on from his arrival and fully up to speed with the physicality and pace of the Premier League, the Brazilian is certainly living the days he once dreamed of when growing up in the humble neighbourhood of Jardim Europa in his hometown Belo Horizonte.

“If we were not playing football, we were playing it in the video game,” recalls Daierson Lorran, Fred’s best friend since their childhood. “He always picked Manchester United to play with and used to say how he admired the grandeur and tradition of the club, and his admiration for the likes of Scholes and Beckham.

“We both had the desire to become a footballer, and I clearly remember a conversation we had when he was only 13. We promised to each other that whoever made it would never leave the other behind, and he has kept his word impressively. Even my nan, who died not long ago, underlined that when she was in the hospital. In one of the last times I saw her, she said, ‘make sure you value your friendship with Fred, he never forgot you regardless of the status he has achieved.”

Fast forward to April 2019, and the best mates enjoyed being reunited at the ground that had held innumerable virtual football clashes between them: Fred proudly invited Lorran to a tour at Old Trafford and even played the role of the interpreter while they were guided behind the scenes in the Theatre of Dreams.

“It was such a special moment for both of us to be there, and for me especially for seeing the affection he got from the fans that were caught by surprised by seeing a first-team player mingling with them. He totally deserves that recognition because he has remained the same humble guy since we first met over 20 years ago. His genuine nature is absolutely unchanged.”

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