Manchester United supporters must have thought they had seen the last of the much-maligned midfield pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay but, thanks to a moment of madness from Casemiro, that duo might return to Premier League action.
“McFred” became a byword for the long days of futility under Erik ten Hag’s predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he persisted with a partnership that was patently not fit for purpose at the highest level.
The summer signings of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen appeared to have consigned those nightmare visions to the history books, at least until Eriksen suffered an ankle injury that could keep him out until May and his Brazilian partner grabbed Will Hughes by the throat in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace and earned a red card and three-game suspension for meetings with Leeds (twice) and Leicester.
Ironically, McTominay is himself injured while Donny van de Beek, who would at least have offered a warm body and pulse to fill a midfield position, is out for the season.
Fred, who has looked increasingly assured and had clearly been earmarked by Ten Hag to renew his national team partnership with Casemiro in Eriksen’s absence, looks a certainty to start in the first Leeds meeting on Wednesday. But alongside him?
Step forward Marcel Sabitzer, brought in on loan from Bayern Munich on deadline day and with one minute of domestic football under his belt since November 12, due to the Bundesliga winter break.
Sabitzer added nine minutes — plus seven of added time — against Palace and, with his greater attacking instincts, would presumably play the “Eriksen” role, leaving Fred to stand in for his compatriot.
So far, so good, but the precedents for life without Casemiro have been anything but. Since his first start after arriving from Real Madrid in August, Casemiro has begun all but five games for Ten Hag. Of those, the manager has opted for a McTominay-Eriksen midfield pair on three occasions and McTominay-Fred twice.
McTominay’s absence now may not be as serious as Casemiro’s, but it is safe to say the Scot has earned some degree of trust from his manager.
Three of those five games without Casemiro starting brought wins. The two league games Casemiro has not started ended in defeats. Since his integration into the squad, the midfielder has appeared in every fixture, apart from that Arsenal defeat.
In short, Ten Hag must now do without the player he most obviously cannot do without.
There are other options to the Fred-Sabitzer ticket. Ten Hag has spoken of employing central defenders Lisandro Martinez or Victor Lindelof in holding midfield roles, or he could use three in a 4-3-3 formation, rather than his preferred 4-2-3-1.
For now, all eyes will be on Sabitzer if he decides the Austrian international has the necessary match fitness to cope with the in-your-face, high-tempo style of Leeds.
The Daily Telegraph in London
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