It’s quite clear to anyone who watches Manchester United regularly that when they have a big game coming up, their midfield duo picks itself.
With players like Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek in the squad, you’d expect the Reds to be able to implement their style of play anywhere they go and look to control games.
Yet it’s the pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred that consistently get the nod in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side for these games.
The defensive partnership, dubbed ‘McFred’ on social media, has provided a solid base for the likes of Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to shine in attack, but against the top teams it seems to limit the Old Trafford side.
Defensively they are able to contain sides for the most part. In games against the ‘big six’ this season, McTominay and Fred have started together in five of the six games. The one game they didn’t play, Manchester United were battered 6-1 by Tottenham, although an early red card for Anthony Martial played a big part in that.
In the other five fixtures, though, United have drawn three and lost two, conceding three goals but scoring none. Even if you extend that to other games they have started, United struggled to create going forward.
The Newcastle game ended 4-1 to United, but it was 1-1 until Pogba came on to replace Fred in the 69th minute. Extending to the Champions League, the score was level in Man Utd’s win over Paris Saint-Germain in Paris before Pogba replaced Alex Telles and added extra attacking impetus, getting the assist for Marcus Rashford’s winner.
It’s an issue for United as they enter title charge territory, currently sitting at the top of the Premier League table competing with Liverpool and Manchester City.
While in recent years avoiding defeat in those games could be seen as something of a success with the club just looking to secure a top four spot, it’s not enough to just not lose anymore.
When you’re trying to win titles, these matches against the teams around you could end up being the difference come the end of the season. For the first time in a while. United aren’t having too much trouble against the teams they’re supposed to beat.
They’ve somewhat corrected their home form, unbeaten in their last five league games at Old Trafford, and remain unbeaten away from home all season. They’re finally consistent in getting results. But Solskjaer’s approach in the big games could be costing the team points.
While it’s fair to suggest that Solskjaer doesn’t completely trust his defence yet and is therefore balancing that with protection in his midfield, being a bit braver could be a major turning point.
Sometimes the duo of ‘McFred’ will be necessary. High energy games or games where United won’t expect to have a lot of the ball, their defensive partnership has proven that it works well. But when United are at home, or even when a game plays out a certain way, abandoning it is likely to bring more success than failure.
Even if they did end up losing one or two games, they’d win more games too. It’s all about finding that balance and United have enough quality and talent in their midfield to do more than just stop the opposition from hurting them. They can really put other top teams to the sword.
Credit where it’s due to Solskjaer, he has made Manchester United hard to beat. Now he needs to be more courageous with his midfield selections and create a side that is impossible to keep out.