The notion that a player’s stock can rise more through their absence, than their competence when actually playing, is not alien in the football world.
Manchester United have seen it evidenced during their past three games, none of which have yielded a victory and have prompted a debate about Harry Maguire’s importance to the side. The fact United have conceded seven goals in those three matches at Old Trafford, and picked up just a solitary point — against a relegated Fulham side — has fuelled the argument that Maguire is a steadying presence upon an otherwise shaky defence.
It’s difficult to imagine many supporters making the same point about Scott McTominay and Fred, who aren’t among the most popular United players if you take social media as a reliable gauge.
But, news flash: it isn’t always a reliable gauge.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has always backed his unlikely pairing in the centre of midfield, always picked them for big games. And until yesterday, both appeared shoo-ins to start the Europa League final against Villarreal in a week’s time.
Their record together against the stronger opponents has, until the recent catastrophic 4-2 defeat to Liverpool — where both men were given the run-around by Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and company — been virtually unblemished.
McTominay and Fred were the double pivot upon which United’s two memorable successes against Paris Saint-Germain in the Parc des Princes were built.
They were the reassuring presences Solskjaer recalled after United’s 6-1 hammering by Tottenham earlier this season — when he’d picked Paul Pogba alongside Nemanja Matic and regretted it.
Barring the spell last summer after lockdown when Pogba, Matic and Bruno Fernandes appeared to work as a trio, Solskjaer has almost always relied on the energy and industry of McTominay and Fred. Until Tuesday night, he would have had them pencilled in to start against Villarreal in Gdansk, with Pogba in a wide, more attacking role.
So the news that both men had picked up knocks in the 1-1 draw with Fulham is more of a concern that some United fans will readily admit.
Solskjaer often paints a positive and upbeat picture with his injury updates, but even the optimistic Norwegian had some doubt in his voice when speaking about McTominay and Fred’s fitness.
“This was end of season team selection,” Solskjaer said on why he played a strong side against the Cottagers.
“Players need minutes, some players need rest and recovery. We’ve had a couple of players that have got injuries with Scott and Fred, so I’ll see how they are.
“Unfortunately, Scott had to come off and Fred doesn’t look great while he’s walking now but we’ve got eight days, so hopefully everyone will be available that was available today.”
Asked to explain the recent dip in his side’s form, Solskjaer replied: “We need to sort a few things out. Stop trying to be the world-beater and play as a team.”
McTominay and Fred are both unselfish players and allow United to play as a team. And without Maguire for the final — which is now looking likely — they will protect a vulnerable defence, as well as providing a ballast for Pogba, Fernandes et al.
United would much rather have them available for the Europa League final, than not. It’s folly to suggest otherwise and, if they are out injured, McTominay and Fred’s detractors may get a rude awakening.