During Fred's early months in the Premier League, it would be fair to say many Manchester City fans will have felt their team had dodged a bullet.

Prior to his move to the red side of Manchester, speculation was rife that Pep Guardiola had identified Fred – at Shakhtar Donetsk back then – as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho in midfield.

Fred had made a reputation for himself as an effective box-to-box midfielder who could have an impact on the ball as well as off it.

But it was difficult to see what possessed Manchester United to pip City to his reported £55million signing during the 2018-19 season, as he struggled with the tempo of the game and didn't appear to offer anything particularly outstanding to any part of the United unit.

However, as the past year or so – especially this season – highlights, Fred has become one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's most-trusted individuals.

As United welcome City to Old Trafford in Wednesday's EFL Cup semi-final, Fred has another chance to show why that is the case.

MR DEPENDABLE?

Fred may have only started 10 of United's 16 Premier League games this term, but a telling pattern emerges when you look at which matches they were.

Among those games, he was in Solskjaer's line-up for outings against Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Southampton, City, Leeds United, Leicester City and Aston Villa.

All of those are, of course, either 'big six' rivals or teams pushing to be in the upper echelons of the Premier League this term. He was brought on at half-time in the 6-1 demolition by Tottenham, and while he hardly held Spurs at bay, they were at the very least less rampant in the second half.

It cannot be a coincidence that these are the type of matches Fred has been used in most often, with Solskjaer clearly valuing the midfielder's off-the-ball qualities as United regularly look to absorb pressure and spring counter-attacks.

That will likely be the tactic again as United host EFL Cup holders City in Wednesday's semi-final, a one-legged repeat of last season's two-match tie in the same round.

A year on from the 2019-20 first leg, Solskjaer will be hoping for a rather different outcome, as City – opting to go with a false nine – overran United's midfield and battered them at Old Trafford that day, deservedly winning 3-1.

There will likely be just four players from the United starting XI of the game a year ago who line up on Wednesday, with Fred one of them. The upheaval in the squad has been significant, but it's telling that the Brazilian is one of those still playing a role, and an important one at that.

He may have let himself down again with a red card against Paris Saint-Germain, but it seems Solskjaer accepted responsibility over that incident.

FRED THE FACILITATOR

It seems highly unlikely Fred will ever be in the running for any of the Premier League's end-of-season individual awards – he doesn't score or create enough, and you cannot say his influence is anything like that of N'Golo Kante in the title-winning Leicester City side.

But, one player who surely will be a candidate for individual gongs is Bruno Fernandes, and players like him need colleagues like Fred in order to thrive.

The Brazil international is well-rounded and has the technical ability to lend support in offensive situations, such as his neat interchanges with Paul Pogba against Aston Villa last time out.

But Fred is undoubtedly at his most effective when his side are not in possession, with his 49 tackles more than any other United or City midfielder in all competitions this term.

It's a similar story with his interceptions count. Fred has made 30 in 2020-21, five more than Rodrigo, who ranks second among the United and City engine room players. That is despite Fred despite playing over 400 minutes less than City's Spain international. Of course, City generally have more of the ball than United, but it still highlights Fred's awareness.

Critics might point out his 12 key passes is a rather meagre total, but with Bruno Fernandes (69) creating chances with such frequency, one could argue it doesn't matter – after all, Fred isn't being put in the team to be a creator.

Curiously, in the league since January 1 last year, United actually have a worse win percentage (50) with Fred in the starting XI than they do without him (71.4), though this is clearly skewed by the fact he is often reserved for games against better opposition.

But what is notable from this time period is United concede fewer shots - 10.3 per game - on average when Fred starts. That goes up to 12.1 shots per 90 minutes when he's not in the first XI – while the team's own shots count increases from 12.4 to 15 each game with the Internacional youth product in the side.

Opta's advanced passing data also reflects favourably on Fred, particularly with respect to starting three open-play sequences that ended in a goal, which is the joint second highest in the Premier League this term.

He has also initiated four open-play passing sequences that led to a shot, which only Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Fernandes can better in the Red Devils' squad.

UNNOTICED, UNDER-APPRECIATED, BUT NOT USELESS

Fred is perhaps the sort of player many would consider dispensable, and maybe he is in certain matches. Rarely does he stand out as an individual, certainly not to the extent of say Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, and much of his work can go unnoticed.

But many of us inadvertently analyse players in isolation and by their individual numbers, rather than how they fit into the collective. Sure, Fred doesn't create many chances, but what he offers United off the ball is seemingly vital for Solskjaer.

Fred may not be the player a lot of United fans expected two and a half years ago, but he has certainly proven himself to be no dud.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested Jurgen Klopp may have been trying to influence referees by discussing the penalties awarded to Manchester United.

Klopp felt Liverpool should have been awarded a penalty during Monday's 1-0 loss to Southampton, while highlighting how many spot-kicks United were awarded.

Under Klopp, Liverpool have been awarded 46 penalties in all competitions, including 30 in the Premier League. In that same time frame, and under three different managers, United have won 67.

Since Solskjaer became United manager in December 2018, United have been given 42 – with 27 in the league. Liverpool have had just 19 spot-kicks in all competitions in that time.

But Solskjaer, whose side host Manchester City in the EFL Cup semi-finals on Wednesday, dismissed the talk about United's penalties.

"That's a fact, probably. That's probably going to be my answer – that's a fact that we’ve got more than them," the United manager told reporters.

"But maybe they should… well, we’ve had… I don’t know how many penalties they've had. I don't count how many penalties they have.

"So, if they want to spend time on worrying about when we get fouled in the box then I don't spend time on that."

Solskjaer suggested Klopp was trying to influence referees by discussing United's penalty record.

"I can't talk on behalf of other managers, why they say things like this," he said.

"Obviously I felt it worked last year in the FA Cup semi because Frank [Lampard, Chelsea head coach] spoke about it.

"We had a nailed-on penalty that we should have had and didn't get, so maybe it's a way of influencing referees."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is convinced Manchester United have developed significantly since suffering three semi-final defeats in 2019-20 as they prepare to host rivals Manchester City in the last four of the EFL Cup.

Had things gone a little differently last term, Man United might have ended the campaign with three trophy successes, breaking Solskjaer's duck as the club's boss.

But, United lost 3-1 to Chelsea in the FA Cup semis, suffered a late 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League and fell at the same stage of the EFL Cup to City, losing 3-2 on aggregate.

The elimination by City was particularly chastening given the manner of the first-leg home loss, as United were swept aside and somewhat fortunate to only lose 3-1 – the 1-0 away win in the second meeting was insufficient to save their hopes.

But it could be argued there is a different aura to this United side. They are level on 33 points with pacesetters Liverpool in the Premier League but have played one game less, and they head into Wednesday's game unbeaten in seven across all competitions.

The EFL Cup semi-finals this season are limited to one-game affairs rather than being split over two, and Solskjaer is adamant United are a different animal.

"When you get to a semi, you've done a lot of good work to get there and naturally you're playing against better and better opposition," Solskjaer told reporters.

"I think we've improved immensely in a year since the last semi [against City] and even when we were in Europe in August.

"For me, it's a step closer to get to the final, we've developed a lot, it's easy to say, 'have we learned?' But it's not about if we've learnt, it's about some fine margins in those semi-finals as well.

"When you win games of football, you don't think about it's a semi-final or a normal game or a league game or a quarter final, you just think about this game and want to win it."

United have faced City six times since Solskjaer was initially installed as Jose Mourinho's replacement in December 2018 and, perhaps rather surprisingly, has the edge over Pep Guardiola in their head-to-head with three wins to two.

Their most recent meeting, just under a month ago, was a rather cagier 0-0 draw that had few conclusions drawn from it by most, though Solskjaer still felt there were signs of United's progression.

They have every reason to be wary again, however – City have progressed from their previous five EFL Cup semis and lost only twice in 23 games in the competition under Guardiola.

"I've seen progress," Solskjaer continued. "Sometimes the results don't show the whole picture of the game, some of our counter-attacking goals in the wins we've had have been brilliant; in the league away when we won, we could have scored four or five in a 10- or 15-minute period.

"A few counter attacks there were out of this world but we had less control of the ball and defended fantastically. I think the last game was more or less 50-50 in possession, maybe a more cagey game from both teams but still I felt that was a progression having stayed more in the game.

"You never know what kind of system he [Guardiola] is going to come up with but you know you've got to defend really well against Man City.

"It's hard to keep the ball in their half, they find a way of overloading, so you've got to be brave, compact, trust your players.

"When we have the ball, we have to be able to keep it, play out of their press because they're one of the quickest to put the counter pressure on and win the ball high up.

"So, it's a balance. We've found that balance. We didn't have the 'X factor' last game, maybe because they were a little bit more cagey and set up to counter attack more as well.

"They've been some fascinating games and I feel we've got closer and closer and results sometimes you can't control."

Former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher has joined Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's coaching staff on a full-time basis.

Fletcher came through United's academy as he spent two decades at Old Trafford during his playing career. He returned to the club in October 2020, taking up the chance to coach the Under-16s.

The 36-year-old - who also had spells at West Brom and Stoke City, as well as winning 80 caps for Scotland - has now accepted a full-time role working with the first team.

"I am delighted to be returning to the club as a first-team coach," Fletcher told United's official website.

"It's a very exciting time for this young team and I am looking forward to taking the next steps in my coaching career by working with Ole and his staff."

Solskjaer is pleased to have Fletcher - who won five Premier League titles with United, as well as the FA Cup and the Champions League - on board.

"Darren has the United DNA running through his veins and he knows exactly what it takes to be a Manchester United player," Solskjaer said.

"He is at the start of his coaching career and his experience both on and off the pitch along with his winning mentality, commitment and hard work will be a great addition to the staff."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer "cannot see any obstacles" to Amad Diallo joining Manchester United from Atalanta soon.

United announced in October they had reached an agreement with the Serie A side for the future transfer of the winger in a reported £37.2million deal.

Diallo, 18, has featured just twice for Atalanta this season, and his move to United has been expected to be completed in January.

After a 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Friday, United manager Solskjaer confirmed a move was close.

"Amad, we've had all the paperwork, or rather we are waiting for all the paperwork. I can't see any obstacles really," he told a news conference.

"Hopefully not too long, he will be with us. Very excited about bringing him in. I think he's shown a few times his qualities but he has to learn to play in England. That's a different way of football, so we'll give him time to develop and impress."

United moved level on points with leaders and reigning champions Liverpool after their win over Villa.

And Solskjaer said he was not expecting too much movement from the club during the January transfer window.

"Apart from that [Diallo], I'm not really giving you too much with what we are going to do with players," he said.

"We are always working long term and any signings will be long term."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes this season's Premier League title race will be "so tight”, though he is not getting carried away after Manchester United moved level with Liverpool at the top. 

United defeated Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford on Friday, remaining second behind the defending champions only due to their inferior goal difference. 

It was a 10th straight league match without defeat for Solskjaer's side, who seized the opportunity presented to them by Liverpool's goalless draw at Newcastle United on Wednesday. 

Liverpool can pull clear again at Southampton on Monday, with United's game in hand against Burnley to come later in January, but Solskjaer is expecting plenty more twists and turns before the campaign is out. 

"We've improved, we're getting better," the manager told Sky Sports. "The league – and the season – is going to be so tight. 

"There are going to be different and difficult games, strange results, we've just got to keep working and improving as a team. 

"Since Project Restart [late last season], we've been a very consistent team. 

"Every time you win a game, you take one step further. It's three points in total, you've just got to accumulate them. 

"The first game is just as important as the last game of the season - they all count the same." 

With Anthony Martial's opener cancelled out by Bertrand Traore, it again fell to Bruno Fernandes to hit the winner from the penalty spot against Villa, who are winless in 16 league meetings with United.

The Red Devils have lost just three of their 30 league matches since the 2020 signing of Fernandes, who has been involved in 33 goals in this time (19 goals, 14 assists). 

In Premier League history, only Andrew Cole (37 involvements - 28 goals, nine assists) has had a greater impact from his first 30 games in the competition. 

But United were clinging on in the closing stages, with Eric Bailly - who made a game-high six clearances - lunging into a vital stoppage-time block in front of goal, to leave Solskjaer a little concerned about his team's inability to close out games when ahead. 

"To be fair, I didn't enjoy the last 10 minutes that much – we should have seen the game out in a better way," he said, having seen United finish with just 48.9 per cent of the possession. 

"It seemed like it was a cup final, or the last game of the season. We need to learn how to play out games better when we're in the lead. We've shown that when we're chasing a goal, we're capable of doing that. 

"We created chances. It was always going to be a physical game. We knew that they'd improved massively, and they gave us some challenges. 

"There were a few times in that box when you were a bit worried. We didn't stop the crosses well enough, because when they put crosses in, they were always dangerous. 

"But we made some fantastic blocks, some saves, so I'm delighted with the three points."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer praised Paul Pogba after the midfielder helped overcome Aston Villa - a result that moves Manchester United level on points with Liverpool at the top of the table.

United started 2021 as they ended the previous year - with a hard-fought home victory - as they defeated Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford, in the process extending their unbeaten run in the Premier League to 10 games.

Marcus Rashford had struck in added time to see off Wolves on December 29, and while they did not leave it so late this time, the Red Devils were still made to work hard.

Solskjaer felt Pogba's ability on the ball helped repel a physical Villa team, the France international impressing again in the United midfield as he continues to improve after recovering from coronavirus.

"He's getting better and better, fitter and fitter. I think he played well today," Solskjaer said to Sky Sports about Pogba, who attempted more passes and more passes in the opposing team's half than any other home player.

"They are a physical side, there were loads of challenges, one against one situations. Paul's one of these boys that can hold players off, get hold of it for us.

"But, not just Paul, we were too keen to play the killer pass. We knew they were going to drop off, then there are other spaces in behind we should have used."

Pogba had the most number of touches for United (69), while also winning 52.6 per cent of his 19 total duels.

The 27-year-old - whose long-term future at the club remains unclear - was fouled twice during the game, one of those occasions leading to the penalty that Bruno Fernandes converted in the second half, seeing the hosts reclaim the lead.

Anthony Martial had put them ahead earlier in the contest, scoring just his second league goal of a campaign disrupted by both injuries and a three-game suspension.

Solskjaer hopes the French forward - who has now scored on all seven days of the week in the Premier League - can build on his performance.

"He's had chances all season, maybe his confidence has had a bit of a knock earlier with the sending off, and some niggles he's had.

"Now he's firing, getting better and better."

United are back in action on Wednesday, hosting neighbours Manchester City in the last four of the EFL Cup. 

They are next on duty in the league on January 12, travelling to take on Burnley five days before a huge trip to defending champions Liverpool.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists his Manchester United players are not getting carried away by the prospect of a Premier League title challenge this season. 

Marcus Rashford's stoppage-time winner against Wolves on Tuesday stretched their unbeaten run to nine league games and cranked the pressure up on leaders Liverpool. 

The Red Devils are now just three points behind Jurgen Klopp's side and have a game in hand. 

It marks an impressive transformation in the club's fortunes after a dismal start to the season, which saw them collect just seven points from their opening six games. 

There were three home defeats in that run, including a humiliating 6-1 reverse to Tottenham. 

The 13-time Premier League champions have been a team reborn in recent months, though, and face Aston Villa on Friday knowing they can go level on points with Liverpool ahead of the Reds' clash against Southampton on Monday. 

While Solskjaer is delighted with how his side have improved, he says the hard work has only just started. 

"Well, we had a difficult start to the season with the late arrival of some players," he told the club's official website. "And I think we have shown after the second international break, the one in October, that we have regrouped and come together.

"We are getting fitter, stronger and the squad is getting better. We just have to take one game at a time, move up the table and improve as a team. 

"But we have finished the year strong. I think we have done well since the beginning of February, or end of January, and we have proven to ourselves that we can be consistent over a longer period.

"When you are getting closer [to the top of the table], that gives you a boost and it gives you extra focus. 

"The good thing about this group is that some of them have won before so they are not going to get too far ahead of themselves. 

"We know that the only way to do it is to take one game at a time.

"I know that is quite a boring statement, but that is the good thing about this group; they are not going to think we have cracked it because in any game in this league, you have got to be at it and that's why we have a big, strong squad."

Solskjaer acknowledges his side will have their work cut out against a Villa side who have won three of their last five Premier League games and sit just four points behind United, having played a game less.

The main threat for United will come from in-form pair Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi.

Grealish – who was linked with a move to United ahead of the 2020-21 campaign – is the Premier League's leading chance creator so far this season, with the England international having crafted 51 opportunities, including six assists.

El Ghazi, meanwhile, has scored five goals in his last five top-flight appearances, after netting just four in his first 37 in the competition.

"You can see the improvement of results and also performances, how solid they are – they have conceded one goal in their last five league games and that was against Chelsea – so they have impressed me," Solskjaer added.

"We've met them in pre-season and of course we've kept in touch with them. I have been impressed but not surprised, because they have a squad and a team full of good players.

"I think it is a team performance, of course, but they have made some very good signings. I think Ollie Watkins is one of the centre forwards that you don't like to play against.

"At the moment, El Ghazi is the man in form and scoring every game. I think the whole front line is going to keep you on your toes and they are going to make you defend. 

"Then they are very solid at the back and they are not going to concede goals, so we need a good performance and hopefully we will get one."

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