In a season laced with moments to sum up the modern-day Manchester United, one arrived a few minutes before half-time at Anfield. Andreas Pereira had the ball on the edge of the Liverpool box. He was embarking on a solo run. Here it was, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s faith in youth, a renewal project being spearheaded by a younger generation a graduate of the famed academy running at Liverpool.
Until Pereira’s propensity to find blind alleys meant he ran straight into team-mate Daniel James, fell over, leaving Liverpool’s Gini Wijnaldum to pick up possession. Architects of their own downfall, displaying poor decision-making, making it easy for the opponent: that is United.
There was something Pereira-esque about it, too. The glimpse of the potential and the ineffectuality. The lack of end product. And the reality Pereira was operating as United’s No. 10. After spending some £840 million in the transfer market since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, after pursuing the great and good, the rich and famous, this was where they ended up.
In his defence, Pereira produced perhaps his best performance of the season against Liverpool. Not on Sunday, when he registered the lowest pass completion rate of any outfield player and United improved markedly after his departure, but in October’s 1-1 draw. His prowess as a running No. 10, a hassler and harrier generated fanfare. The rematch produced calls from fans for United to sell him.
It exposed the Pereira delusion, the misapprehension he is good enough that has taken root with some in Solskjaer’s reign. The occasional highlights – a spectacular goal against Southampton, a diligent shift in the brilliant win over Paris Saint-Germain – have been outnumbered by the frequent displays of underwhelming anonymity. Sheffield United and Aston Villa, both Championship teams last season, outclassed Manchester United in midfield when Pereira and Fred were paired.
He is a statistic, a symbol of a belief in youth but fills a void, propelled to prominence in part by United’s failings. There are the failings of Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata this season, plus the failure to keep Paul Pogba fit, which have given him more opportunities.
There is the failure to sign a No. 10, anyone remotely resembling a replacement for Ander Herrera or Marouane Fellaini, or a winger other than James. Solskjaer has described him as more of a No. 8 or a No. 10 than a No. 6, but has often picked him as a right-winger. He is not definitively any of them, just a multipurpose mediocrity.
He is a reason why United’s midfield is often a wasteland. For an attacking midfielder, he does not score many goals; just two in 40 Premier League matches after events at Anfield. He does not create that much, with four assists in that time and as many this season as Mason Holgate. He does not keep the ball often enough: the more attacking Marcus Rashford is United’s only outfield player, among those who have started two or more games, with a lower pass completion rate; he can press, but not pass. He is scarcely a talismanic figure: both this season and last, United win a higher percentage of games when Pereira does not start.
He is instead an indictment; a symptom of United’s slide who has now contributed to it. He was the king of pre-season tours, but granted only nine league appearances by Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, with the latter twice sending him out on loan.
Solskjaer latched on to him. But if it is evident that Pereira would not have got in most previous United teams, even in the post-Ferguson years, it is more damning that he would get in the midfields of few of the sides they face.