Premier League tactics: Fred and width keyed Manchester United’s counter-attacking derby clinic

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07: Fred of Manchester United in action with Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on December 07, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07: Fred of Manchester United in action with Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on December 07, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images) /

Fred and a smart use of width were the keys to Manchester United’s counter-attacking clinic in this weekend’s derby win vs. Manchester City.

Manchester United weren’t supposed to beat Manchester City. The Red Devils weren’t supposed to play the better football, and Fred wasn’t supposed to boss midfield against David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

Yet all of those things happened when United won the derby 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. It was a counter-attacking clinic from the visitors, who had many unwelcome heroes to thank.

That included Jesse Lingard returning from the wilderness to be the creative fulcrum of a fluid and fleet-of-foot front four. Lingard excelled, but there was no bigger surprise than Fred’s masterful turn at the heart of the engine room.

The Brazilian has been indifferent at best for most of his time at United since arriving in a deal worth £52 million back in 2018. Finding his best position has proved a challenge, not only for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but also for his predecessor Jose Mourinho.

Rather than being defined by a single role, Fred was the ultimate all-rounder on Saturday. His box-to-box energy, brawn and passing technique helped key United’s swagger and efficiency on the break.

The visitors needed a mere two minutes to fire a warning shot City’s way. United’s first counter began with center-back Victor Lindelof, who was irrepressible in the back four, prodding a ball toward Lingard, who dropped into the center of midfield.

Lingard turned Rodri easily and passed to Marcus Rashford on the left. Rashford then fed Anthony Martial, who had made a smart run from in to out.

It was at this moment Fred made his move. He broke from deep to give United a man over in the attack, took Martial’s pass and laid the ball off to Daniel James on the right.

James’ shot was easily parried by Ederson, but United had successfully shown their intent. The move highlighted the two most important factors in how the Red Devils would exploit City on the counter time and again.

First, United’s shape off the ball was disciplined and intelligent. The structure was designed to exploit every area of the Citizens’ injury-hit defense.

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Rashford and James pulled wide where they could break behind City’s buccaneering full-backs. They could also go on the outside of Angelino and Kyle Walker any time the full-backs tucked infield to help City boss the middle, a key facet of Pep Guardiola’s tactics.

United’s pronounced width increased the distances between the members of City’s back four. This exposed a soft center where over-matched duo John Stones and Fernandinho were isolated against Martial, Lingard and runners from midfield like Fred.

The latter became the launching point for other rapid breaks. His next contribution involved receiving the ball from Luke Shaw and threading an inch-perfect pass into Rashford.

This time Martial had pulled wide toward James on the right. Having two players on his side made Angelino tuck in closer to Fernandinho, leaving room for Rashford’s angled pass to again find James in space on the wing.

The Welshman teed up Martial, whose shot drew another stop from a frantic and busy Ederson.

United had already surpassed their efforts in the final third against City last season, and Fred was a big reason for the improvement:

His next contribution began with pinching possession from Gabriel Jesus after the striker’s heavy touch. Fred showed his mettle and skill to scrap free of the attentions of Jesus and Walker then pick out Lingard with the right pass.

Lingard found Rashford on the left, and while another smart run from Martial forced Fernandinho out of the middle, United’s No. 10 drew a foul from Bernardo Silva.

Rashford made no mistake from 12 yards to give the away side a thoroughly deserved lead:

Fred was orchestrating United’s moves from deep, but he was also able to supplement those breaks with his own raiding runs forward.

The best of those runs came shortly after the opening goal when James and Lingard combined to set him free after the midfielder had charged from one box to the other.

Fred calmly turned Stones before sliding an exquisite pass Rashford’s way, only for the striker to miscue a tame shot wide. The finish was a disappointment, but United had turned defending a corner into a great chance at the other end because of Fred’s willingness to cover the ground.

He was up in support when United broke for 2-0, but this time Fred only needed to watch while James played in Martial to finish. The Frenchman has battled injuries and inconsistency in recent years, but he remains a true talent who performed his role as the fulcrum of United’s attacking quartet superbly.

Martial’s goals showed his confidence returning, and there was no doubt Fred had been buoyed by his own contributions. The South American began turning on the style while shedding the timidity and indecision so common during many of his performances in a United shirt before Saturday.

By the end, Solskjaer was left in no doubt about how important Fred had been for United’s potentially season-defining win, per Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News:

"Arguably man of the match today. He took the ball, he’s playing against Kevin de Bruyne, probably the best player in the league and I thought he was excellent.It’s great to see it, the boy deserves it. But when you get a run, and keep the team together, Scott and Fred have made a great partnership."

Fred merited those words after the way he had led City’s stars in the middle on a merry dance:

Of course, Fred wasn’t alone in helping United seize ownership of midfield. He was given the freedom to break at will by the solid structure of United’s shape.

The shape relied on a flat back four, perfectly spaced and ably protected by a two-man barrier at the base of midfield. Fred was the more adventurous member of the pair, but Scott McTominay made sure the platform stayed secure:

With a six-man shield in front of David Dea Gea, along with a swift and shape-shifting foursome up top, United have the ideal formula to keep catching the league’s big teams cold.

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