Fred Rodrigues is Manchester United’s Player of the Month. Those words sit a little awkwardly in the mouth, don’t they? But a series of energetic displays over the last 30 days have seen the Brazilian midfielder win the club’s fan vote for January by a comfortable margin.
A player signed for £52m being considered best at the club for one month of the season is on the surface only natural, but to dress it up like that would be to ignore Fred’s travails over the last year and a half.
The gong, though relatively modest, represents a considerable achievement given that towards the end of last season there was almost universal consensus that Fred was just another expensive flop.
Was that condemnation, though, an opinion formed with too much haste? A product, perhaps, of the desire for immediate gratification in the era of social media and rushed judgement?
Wind back to early summer 2018 and the picture could not have been much rosier for the man from Belo Horizonte. He was coming off the back of a brilliant season with Shakthar Donestsk, having won a second successive league and cup double and reached the last-16 of the Champions League. He had just got married and had been called into the Brazil squad for the World Cup in Russia.
To top it all off, rumours were flying around that he was about to join the 20-time English champions for a considerable sum. He must have been walking on air.
The expectations for him in Manchester were as high as the fee. United had outfought rivals City to secure his signature and those ‘Welcome to Manchester’ and ‘Fred Rodrigues: Goals, Skills, Assists’ videos were plastered over the internet. United have had some bad experiences with Brazilian central midfielders but this time, surely, things would be different.
One of the YouTube videos showed him battering a free kick into the top corner of some stranded Ukrainian goalkeeper’s net, enhanced by the obligatory sunburnt film effect and blasting Europop. Another had him threading an inch-perfect pass through eight players for Bernard to tuck into the net during their time together at Shakhtar. ‘Look at what he can do! He’ll destroy teams every week!’
Except real life is never quite as appealing as a collection of highlights on the web. There is no sunburnt film effect on a Sunday afternoon in November in Trafford. There is, for that matter, no sun to burn any film. The Premier League is hard, it is physical, and it was a big step up from what he had been used to.
In an interview for Brazilian YouTube channel De Sola this week, Fred recalled that, “When I got to Ukraine the league was strong. There were lots of Brazilians [at other clubs]. After the war the level went down. There were only two teams: Shakhtar and Dinamo Kiev. It wasn’t very competitive, we always won.”
As a result, he found it hard to cope when he arrived in the north west. “It’s the best league in the world,” he continued, “I felt it a lot in the first few games. I controlled the ball and there were two or three [players] running me over. Last season wasn’t great.”
Jose Mourinho showed scant faith and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival proved of little immediate assistance. The differences between expectation and reality were hard to process. Pundits were harsh in their tone and social media was full of people ready to write him off.
Yet rather than panic, Fred sought advice from judicious sources. Rivaldo and Gilberto Silva both encouraged him to tough it out. And United coach Michael Carrick stuck by the Selecao player, helping him along with little hints and nudges in the right direction.
“We adapt over time,” Fred concluded in the aforementioned interview. And adapt, finally, is what he has done.
Helped by Paul Pogba’s injury absence, Fred has now played in 31 of 36 United games in 2019/20 and has not missed a minute of Premier League action since September. That long run in the team has seen him become one of United’s most consistent performers, perhaps only behind Marcus Rashford in terms of his overall importance this season.
When United played Liverpool on January 19 (in the middle of a run of nine games in 29 days for the Brazilian) they were expected to be overrun, especially in the under-manned central midfield areas. But Fred did all he could to resist the waves of Red that crashed over him at Anfield, making three tackles and four interceptions.
And when United were in possession, it was he who tried hardest to provide forward momentum. By the end of the game he had made two passes that resulted in shots for team-mates, completed three dribbles and had two shots himself. It was in vain, of course, but a solid display against Liverpool never goes unnoticed by the Old Trafford faithful.
He has kept up those levels since and was again instrumental as Solksjaer’s men beat City 1-0 in the Carabao Cup last week. His left-footed distribution brings balance to the United midfield and his defensive work has steadily improved.
United have had their fair share of issues this season, but Fred is not one of them. Perhaps all we needed was a little more patience, a little understanding that regardless of hype-building YouTube videos and astronomical fees, it remains hard to hit the ground running in the Premier League.
In his time at United, Fred has shown determination and strength in the face of unyielding criticism. Now he is reaping the rewards he deserves.