Watchers of United’s first two pre-season matches of the summer may have noticed a few things. Marcus Rashford has been hitting the weights recently. Anthony Martial is smiling at an alarming rate (we even heard his voice!). And Andreas Pereira has been assigned a new shirt number.
Pereira, having previously worn 44, is now sporting Nemanja Vidić’s vacated number 15 shirt. Squad numbers are largely meaningless in the modern game aside from selling shirts and generating webpage clicks (CHA-CHING!), but this may be a telling move for the young Brazilian. We have heard on more than one occasion that José Mourinho puts stock in shirt numbers, and a move from the 30+ range of shirt numbers that is typically the domain of youngsters into the 11-29 range of certified senior squad members is something of an official promotion.
More importantly than what Pereira has been playing in, however, is where he has been playing: holding midfield. In the match against LA Galaxy, United lined up in a 4-3-3 that Mourinho has confirmed will be the team’s primary shape in the upcoming season. Pereira featured in the second half of that match alongside Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini in the center of the park, and it was Pereira who was most often the deepest-lying of the three.
Before going on loan to Granada, Pereira also featured in holding midfield for United during pre-season last summer. He went on to spend this last year primarily on the left of the attack for the Spanish side, but it appears that his manager at United sees his future in a central role.
Although Ander Herrera has been a willing occupant of the so-called pivote role so far under Mourinho, United’s summer chase for a holding midfielder has been well-documented. The Reds have been strongly linked with bids for Eric Dier and Nemanja Matić (in the papers), and with Fabinho (almost exclusively in the tBB comment section). In Pereira, Mourinho may be grooming a home-grown alternative.
Pereira is a technically-gifted player, with an eye for a pass and a knack of finding spaces. His forward passing and crossing may be be restricted by a more defensive role, but his close control and comfort on the ball are ideal qualities to have in a position that is about much more than just breaking up play in the modern game.
There are no shortage of comparisons for players who started their careers in a more attacking role before making a name for themselves further back on the pitch. Andres Iniesta and Luka Modrić started their senior careers as purely creative players before cementing themselves as modern greats in an area of the pitch twenty yards further back than where they first played. Xabi Alonso was a “number 10” in his early career, before eventually becoming one of the best holding midfielders of any era. Closer to home, even Paul Scholes first entered the senior team as a second striker. Pereira, who is already showing the tenacity and willingness to run that will put him in good stead in midfield, could be latest to follow that same path.
There is reason for caution as well. John Obi Mikel was a sparkling attacking talent before none other than José Mourinho helped mold him into a passable and utterly boring Claude Makélélé impersonator. One of the tragedies of Anderson’s career - second only to his stubborn refusal to keep himself in shape - is that United took a breathtaking creator and turned him into a less-reliable Darren Fletcher. It would be a shame to see the magic similarly drummed out of Pereira’s game.
If Pereira is to break into the United first team this season, however, midfield is likely his only way in - for better or for worse. In his more natural positions, the path to the first team is blocked by more accomplished players in Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and he lacks the pace to ever be a real option for Mourinho on the wings. But in midfield, the holding spot is still up for grabs, with no new player yet signed and Michael Carrick unlikely to feature even as often as he did last year. Furthermore, there is no real back-up to either Paul Pogba or Ander Herrera, other than Marouane Fellaini and his special brand of making himself a nuisance to teammates and opponents alike.
If Pereira can learn a new position, and do enough to impress Mourinho these next few weeks, a future as the next academy graduate to break into the senior team beckons.