Fred’s red card during Wednesday night’s 3-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain rules him out of the crucial game against RB Leipzig tonight.
United need at least a draw to seal qualification but must secure it without the Brazilian – as well as Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to get the ask of of replacing Fred right for the most important match of the season so far.
There are three ways he could do that…
Five at the back
Solskjaer could account for the loss of Fred’s dynamism in front of the defence by adding another defender to the backline.
A 5-3-2 system earned victory against PSG on matchday one, with Axel Tuanzebe, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw at centre back.
With Tuanzebe back from suspension, Shaw returning after injury and even Eric Bailly in the squad again, Solskjaer has the defensive options to beef up his defence.
That could ease the burden on the midfield in Germany which is something well worth considering because United don’t have a like-for-like replacement in terms of Fred’s energy and diligence.
Solskjaer started with a midfield diamond when United thumped Leipzig 5-0 in October.
On that occasion, Scott McTominay anchored the quartet, Fred was to the right, Paul Pogba on the left with Donny van de Beek at the tip.
Bruno Fernandes will expect to start, but Dutchman van de Beek could take up Fred’s role.
He’s got the energy to shuttle up and down from a right of centre position, pressing diligently and making good use of the ball.
Unleashing Pogba, Bruno and van de Beek would be a brave move from Solskjaer, but the diamond system worked a treat against Leipzig at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer went with a 4-2-3-1 at home to PSG, with Fred and McTominay sitting deep.
United could simply replace Fred with Nemanja Matic, Pogba or van de Beek – although there would be question marks about any of those three solutions.
Matic is the most experienced and defensively responsible but his lack of legs would be a concern.
Indeed, journalist Andy Mitten claimed concerns over the Serbian’s ability to cope against quick midfielders were the reason he didn’t come on for Fred when he was walking a disciplinary tightrope last Wednesday.
Pogba’s defensive ill-discipline has been extensively discussed, but Solskjaer has played him in a midfield two on numerous occasions.
He also deployed van de Beek there from the start in both games against Istanbul Basaksehir, with varying levels of success.
There isn’t a perfect solution, but the option Solskjaer opts for will be crucial. He has to get it right.
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