“A great substitution from Ralf Rannick, but I’m not sure he was brought on to do just that.”
Martin Tyler was in mild disbelief when Fred came off the bench to restore Manchester United’s lead against Leeds on Sunday afternoon, capping off a fine move as he rifled past Illan Meslier at the near-post.
It was the latest demonstration of attacking flair from the Brazilian samba star, one of the most impressive transformations since the German arrived on an interim basis nearly three months ago.
Fred often struggled because nobody quite knew what it was he offered in the United midfield, but there can be no doubt about what he does offer now playing as one of two number eights in the current set-up.
The 28-year-old is the best pressing midfielder at the club, a precious asset for Rangnick, and he has also debunked a few myths by proving just how reliable he can be with his feet as well.
Fred is still susceptible to frustrating lapses in concentration which leave you wanting to pull your hair out, but in the final third he has fine-tuned his passing and slowly become an unlikely attacking outlay for his side.
Midfield balance remains a big concern for Rangnick, and despite Fred’s tremendous impact off the bench, it is understandable why he was the fall guy for a match of such an occasion.
Scott McTominay, despite his limitations, is the best defensive anchor currently available, Paul Pogba has been in good shape of late, and Bruno Fernandes remains the best midfielder at the club.
United did enough to deserve the three points at Elland Road, but with massive matches against Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool in the Premier League next month, a more robust set-up will need to be settled upon to ensure they aren’t completely overrun in midfield.
As long as United don’t have a specialist defensive midfielder to call upon, it makes sense to keep the ‘McFred’ selection in midfield, even if that is as part of the more advanced 4-3-3 approach rather than the old 4 -2-3-1 system which was favored by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The issue with that is that Pogba or Fernandes would need to be dropped from their role as a number eight and, once again, the performance against Leeds might have provided the answer.
Pogba started the match in a central role but made his biggest impact when he drifted out onto the left, terrorizing the Leeds defense with his dribbling from out wide as he opened up favorable angles for shots and passes into the box.
The Frenchman should have grabbed an assist when he danced past Adam Forshaw on the edge of the area, before delivering a beautiful pass into the box which Cristiano Ronaldo somehow failed to convert beyond Meslier.
In the second-half, it was clear that as Pogba failed to influence the game, United lost their grip on proceedings, conceding twice in the blink of an eye as the boisterous home crowd pulled Leeds off the ropes before a knockout blow could be delivered .
The introduction of Fred was what helped United regain control and gave them a solid foundation to go on to win the match. Getting him and Pogba on the pitch at the same time could be the key to ensuring United have the appropriate balance when they are faced with elite teams in the weeks ahead.
In order to do that, United should pack their midfield with McTominay in the deeper position while Fred and Fernandes occupy the two more advanced roles. When out of position, the Brazilian can again drop into a defensive axis to add extra support in front of the defence, and when in possession, he can get into the attacking areas he likes to occupy.
Doing so means Pogba will need to be used primarily in his inverted left wing role, but given Jadon Sancho’s impressive performance on the right at Elland Road, that might not be such a bad idea anymore.
The downside is that Marcus Rashford, Anthony Elanga and Jesse Lingard would all have to settle for substitute roles, but recent evidence suggests the attacking trio are all better suited to influencing matches when they are introduced from the bench.
If United lose control in matches against City and Liverpool as they did against Leeds, they will likely be punished so severely that they have no way back into the contest.
In order to get a positive result, they need to strike the right balance. Pogba and Fred will be crucial to that.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.