Football is inherently fickle. Perceptions rely predominantly on outcomes and so, when part of a team underperforming expectations, players can quickly become scapegoats.
The good thing about football’s inherent fickleness, however, is that narratives can swing quickly. The phrase from hero to villain – and vice versa – doesn’t quite boast the relationship with any other part of society than it does with football.
Enter Fred. So often a regular whipping boy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, by the end of Ralf Rangnick’s Old Trafford bow the Brazilian was the protagonist of the piece.
Rangnick lined Man Utd up a 4-2-2-2 formation, instructing Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes to play centrally behind a front two of Marcus Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo. Fred and his midfield partner Scott McTominay sat at the base of the midfield.
The intensity of United’s press in the opening exchanges was relentless. It was, in short, everything the Old Trafford faithful had expected from Rangnick. The distances were right, the energy was sufficient and, were it not for some heroic Crystal Palace defending, it would have yielded a goal inside the opening half hour.
Central to that was the creativity of Fernandes and the slaloming dribbles of Sancho in attacking areas, but Fred’s role cannot be overlooked. The Brazilian was denied a surefire opener in the first half when Tomkins diverted his goal-bound strike from the edge of the area away for a corner.
The opportunity offered a glimpse into the knock-on effect for Fred in Rangnick’s system. With a clear emphasis on central occupation – hence the lack of width in the midfield line – Fred is given the license to supplement attacks without fear that he will vacate large swathes of space in the centre of the pitch.
It was no surprise, then, that his goal came from an identical move. Again, he was on hand to support Mason Greenwood on the edge of the penalty area when the Englishman’s path became crowded by Palace defenders. The quality of his finish – with his weaker foot no less – left Rangnick purring on the touchline.
Many will point to the Brazilian’s display in Man Utd’s midweek win over Arsenal as evidence that his revival preceded Rangnick’s arrival. United improved structurally under Michael Carrick and, as a result, Fred was able to make a positive impact.
However, his performance raised the mouthwatering prospect of Fred under Rangnick. The German spoke about bringing “control” to Man Utd and there’s few players in the current squad who will benefit more from serenity around him than Fred in the heart of midfield.
There will inevitably be winners and losers in the transition between Solskjaer and Rangnick. Players who benefitted from the chaos of the Norwegian’s style of football may find themselves left behind as the German instills a bit of order into United’s performances.
Already after just 90 minutes of football, however, Fred is inching towards the winners column. Scorer of the first goal of the Rangnick era, he could be set to become a crucial piece of the furniture.