Marcel Sabitzer can banish Manchester United memories of a ‘McFred’ midfield
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, those fans may yet see that duo 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 against Crystal Palace and earned a red card and three-game suspension for meetings with Leeds United, twice, and Leicester City.
Ironically, McTominay is himself injured – Ten Hag last week loosely talked about the Scotland international being out for “two weeks” – 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 precisely one minute of domestic football under his belt since Nov 12, due to the extended 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 – a home Europa League Cup defeat by Real Sociedad in September – 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, but they were against underwhelming opponents in cup ties: FC Sheriff, Aston Villa and Charlton.
The two league games Casemiro has not started ended in defeats – a 6-3 thrashing at Manchester City and the recent 3-2 loss at Arsenal, for which Casemiro was suspended.
The most telling statistic around Ten Hag’s use of Casemiro is that, 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 possibly 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, as the manager hinted was the case on Friday, he decides the Austrian international has the necessary match fitness to cope with Leeds’s in-your-face, high-tempo style.
“It’s going to be tough, for sure,” goalkeeper David de Gea said of Casemiro’s suspension. “We lost already Christian, now ‘Case’, big players for us. But we have a bigger squad, players are ready to play, everyone is really focused.
“He [Sabitzer] shows already, he played 15 to 20 minutes, he did really well, made some good tackles, good with the ball. Everyone is ready to play.
“He’s an experienced guy, he played a lot of games in the Bundesliga, he’s a nice lad, it’s good for the dressing room. I think he showed in 15 minutes, it’s not easy to come in a game when we’re one man less, he showed good spirit. I think he’s going to help the team a lot.”