Fred has had a reinvention at Manchester United since the change of manager last December and his move up the pitch looks like it’s continuing under Erik ten Hag.
The Brazilian’s ability as a counter-presser was always going to appeal to Ralf Rangnick and there were times under the German when he shifted from playing alongside Scott McTominay to more of a No. 8 role, trying to influence games further up the pitch.
When he was named in a three-man midfield against Real Sociedad that also included Christian Eriksen it was felt he would play deeper. Instead, Fred was as advanced as Bruno Fernandes is, playing as a No. 10, just over the shoulder of Ronaldo.
That left Eriksen in a deeper role, often to the left of Casemiro and often trying to link play between defence and attack. It’s a role he’s performed superbly so far and seeing his name on the team sheet for a seventh successive game was evidence of how valuable he is to Ten Hag, especially in that position.
Eriksen was excellent yet again in his 45-minute appearance, but Fred’s first half in that advanced role was disastrous. His inability to play one-touch passes slowed United down and when he did get the ball away his accuracy was awry.
It’s that lack of consistency with the ball at his feet that is the biggest failing of Fred’s game and having done well to resurrect his United career last season, he could find himself on the periphery again with performances like this.
United produced their best attacking performance of the season against Arsenal on Sunday, but this was a much more laboured display and further proof that they are struggling to break down teams with a defensive mindset.
Real Sociedad came with the intention of shutting United down and they achieved it far too easily. Cristiano Ronaldo offered almost nothing at centre-forward apart from being regularly offside, while Antony only flickered briefly.
Anthony Elanga twice darted into dangerous positions but having done the hard work his final ball let him down, a recurring problem in his game.
Eriksen was the most creative presence in the first half but once he’d gone off United’s threat completely fizzled out. Fernandes, on at half-time, couldn’t influence the game and United never looked like getting back in the game. Their attacking play remains a work in progress.
Ten Hag shuffled his pack to a degree against Sociedad, but the sight of both his first-choice full-backs starting only strengthened the idea that Diogo Dalot and Tyrell Malacia are integral to United at the moment.
Twelve months ago Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw were the first-choice full-backs, but on Thursday night they were sat near each other in the directors’ box.
Injuries may have meant Ten Hag had little option in those selections – Wan-Bissaka was named on the bench but didn’t take his place amongst the subs – but it’s clear Dalot and Malacia have stolen a significant march on their rivals.
They both look far more compatible with what Ten Hag wants from this position. Aggression in defensive situations, an ability to attack when necessary but also the skillset and reading of the game to slot into midfield and help build the play and prevent counter-attacks in that role.
The biggest issue with VAR in European games can be the different interpretations of officials from domestic leagues translating to these contests and United were on the wrong end of it last night.
Lisandro Martinez blocked David Silva’s shot with his body only for the ball to deflect onto his arm. Under Premier League rules it’s no longer a penalty, but in Serie A they have more penalties for handball than any other league, so these officials took a different view.
Marco Di Bello pointed to the spot and the decision was upheld by VAR Massimiliano Irrati, much to the incredulity of United’s players. It was a terrible decision.
United’s draw has been extremely kind and while they should have been beating Real Sociedad as well, it will be a failure if they don’t take 12 points from their four games against Sheriff Tiraspol and Omonia Nicosia.
Thursday night football can be bad enough for a club of United’s stature, but the group stages really are a chore and it will be a relief they are over so quickly this season. It’s in February when interest should really begin to grow.