Shakhtar's Fred could be the perfect understudy to Fernandinho at Man City
It is perhaps logical that Manchester City are reportedly interested in signing Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk as a backup and eventual successor to Fernandinho. After all, the Ukrainian champions bought the midfielder in order to replace the City-bound Fernandinho immediately after the star was sold for £34 million in the summer of 2013.
Now, more than four years later, it could be the right time for the 24-year-old Fred to move on to bigger challenges. Fernandinho spent eight seasons in Donetsk, but the Ukrainian league was much richer and stronger in those days. Now that it has been depleted only two decent teams remain, with Shakhtar forced to play away from their home city because of the troubles with Russia. Under contract until 2021, Fred is bound to go for a hefty fee, and all sides should be excited about a potential transfer -- especially the midfielder himself.
"It would be a dream to follow Fernandinho's footsteps, because he is my role model. I am flattered by comparisons with him, because he is one of the best Brazilians to have played for Shakhtar, but it is too early to make such statements," Fred said a year ago. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to miss half a year due to suspension, and that is the most significant stain on his career so far.
Fred started out as a left-back in the youth system of Atletico Mineiro of his hometown of Belo Horizonte. Upon joining Internacional of Porto Allegre at the age of 16, he was at times used on the left wing and considered himself an attack-minded player.
When Fred broke into Internacional's first team in 2012, however, he played in central midfield most of the time. That is why he was delighted when Dunga, one of the most celebrated defensive midfielders in Brazil history, was named as coach a year later. He learned a lot, but the partnership was short-lived. Shakhtar, who did an outstanding job in the Brazilian transfer market those days, came calling, and Fred agreed to join them upon consulting with former Donetsk stars Luiz Adriano and Jadson.
Fred did his case no harm by scoring a brace on his debut, in a 3-1 win over Chornomorets Odessa in the Ukrainian Super Cup.
It took him two years to become a regular starter for Shakhtar, but Dunga remembered his protege well, and gave him a chance at the 2015 Copa America after Luiz Gustavo was injured. Unfortunately, that ended up in a doping scandal, but the Ukrainian giants stood by their star, and he became more influential once Fonseca replaced long-time manager Mircea Lucescu on the bench in the summer of 2016.
He tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide during the 2015 edition of the Copa America. He was initially suspended for a year, backdated to the tournament, but he had already played the first half of the 2015-16 season with Shakhtar. That led to the World Anti-Doping Agency appealing the length of the ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but agreement was made before the hearing that he would sit out March to July 2017 and train alone in his homeland.
Back at Shakhtar under Fonseca, the coach noticed the remarkable playmaking skills of the midfielder, who is unpredictable thanks to magnificent ball control with both feet -- he is naturally left-footed, but is able to use his right with the same precision.
"Fonseca allows me to play both offensively and defensively, and my main task is to change the direction of attacking moves. Under Lucescu, forwards and full-backs were responsible for that, but now I am the conductor. Everything had changed completely. The coach trusts me and sees qualities that went unnoticed by Lucescu," Fred said.
Fred's form earned him a recall to the national team, with Tite putting him on the bench in the World Cup qualifying fixtures against Chile and Bolivia in October. More importantly, he was ever-present in Shakhtar's Champions League campaign, where they finished second in Group F ahead of Napoli to qualify for the round of 16. Pep Guardiola was impressed with his performances in both matches against Manchester City, a 2-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium and the 2-1 win for Shakhtar in Kharkiv, and Fred is now a reported target for the Premier League leaders, while rivals Manchester United are also said to be interested.
"Fred should be a decent backup for Fernandinho. His style is well suited for Guardiola, and he proved his ability to excel in high-tempo matches against top rivals in the Champions League this term," Ilya Novikov of Tribuna.com tells ESPN FC.
"Fred is still less tenacious, aggressive and tactically disciplined compared to Fernandinho. At times he tends to lose concentration, and doesn't always backtrack quickly enough after losing the ball, but it is possible to improve in those aspects. Fred is very good at moving forward, providing quality through-balls. He feels comfortable under pressure, and his dribbling skills are good for a holding midfielder too."
With Shakhtar preparing to face Roma in the Champions League, a January move seems unlikely, but Man City should have little problem in wrapping up the deal ahead of the summer. While not the most glamorous of transfers, Fred could turn out to be a welcome addition to the squad, especially in the long term.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.