It was a moment that summed up Fred’s game this season; the chance to score a defining captain’s goal and give Melbourne Heart the lead against Perth Glory in what was a must-win clash for both teams.
Unmarked and ghosting into the 18-yard-box to meet David Williams’ cross, Fred had Danny Vukovic’s goal at his mercy as the ball fell invitingly into his path. With enough time to select any patch of hexagons in the back of the net to smash the ball into, the Brazilian’s assured touch gave way to a strike lacking conviction, technique and belief.
The script wouldn’t have Fred as Heart’s hero at that moment. Nor would he be Heart’s White Knight some 11 minutes later when a second chance arose for the 33-year-old to claim glory (excuse the pun) as yet another Williams cross found its way to the Brazilian, again unmarked at the far post. Just like his earlier strike, his attempt from the edge of the six-yard box was bereft of confidence and failed to generate even a slight reaction from Vukovic as his header sailed harmlessly wide.
So, what’s the issue with Fred? Where’s the brooding confidence the talismanic figure displayed last season? Could it simply be a minor form slump as he adjusts to John Aloisi’s new style, or has his history of injuries finally taken its toll on an aging body to the point where he’s unable to produce the high level performances we’ve become accustomed to?
There’s no doubt Fred’s role has changed since Aloisi replaced John van ‘t Schip as coach. Under the Dutchman’s system where the ball was played out from the back at every chance, Fred would more often than not be in possession within two-three passes once Clint Bolton set the play in motion. He was central to everything. Aloisi now has his team playing a more direct style, with ball distribution from the back essentially bypassing the midfield in favour of hitting targets like Josip Tadic and Williams higher up the park.
When Fred has managed to get on the ball, there have been flashes of brilliance with clever interplay and insightful running. Often the ideas have been there, not so much the execution. He’s also been culpable of causing turnovers and being uncharacteristically sloppy with his distribution and decision-making — something you wouldn’t accept from an experienced senior player, let alone your captain and marquee signing.
The Brazilian, who comes out of contract at season’s end, underwent groin surgery during the off-season, however whether the operation impacted on his ability to complete a full pre-season — which in turn would effect his season proper to an extent — is unclear. It would, however, go some way to explaining the lack of sharpness and conviction in his play.
What is clear is how important Fred is to Heart. In many respects, you could make the case that he’s still the barometer of the team’s success. While it can be argued that players like Tadic and Richard Garcia can shoulder some of the burden in the final third, neither possesses the kind of ingenuity that defines the crafty Brazilian. And for Heart to win consistently, and therefore make a real push for the finals this season, it needs its captain to stand tall as he did during that defining period at the tail-end of last season — a period which sealed Heart’s place in the finals and essentially won him the Alex Tobin Award.
Heart’s season — and perhaps his future at the club — depends on it.