Manchester United took a team of predominantly teenagers to Kazakhstan last week to play Astana in the Europa League. Within 10 minutes, United’s captain and academy graduate Jesse Lingard put the Red Devils 1-0 up.
Inevitably, the jokes came right away. All of them variations of the same joke.
Has anyone made the “great to see a young prospect like Lingard scoring in Europe” joke yet? Can I be the first? #MUFC— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) November 28, 2019
This Lingard lad looks like a hot prospect! Only 17— Mark Goldbridge (@markgoldbridge) November 28, 2019
The joke of course being, that for the longest time Lingard was deemed by some to be an ‘upcoming prospect’ who is still developing and has yet to reach his peak.
Lingard will turn 27 in less than two weeks. We know what he is. His pressing is valuable against clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea. He has a knack for coming up with big goals in big games. But ultimately, he’s a squad player and nothing more. If you’re relying on him to create your attack, you’re in trouble.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point with Lingard. Louis van Gaal gave him his debut by starting him at wing back. A year later van Gaal deployed him along both wings and even started him at center forward alongside Memphis Depay against Watford.
José Mourinho was slow to trust him, deploying him mainly as a right winger in his first year. A year later Mourinho moved him to a more central attacking role, and Lingard had a 13 goal 7 assist season. He then went to the World Cup where Gareth Southgate also used him centrally, but in more of a ‘free 8’ role.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over at United, Lingard was basically, and incorrectly, viewed as an ‘attacking player.’ Solskjaer deployed him there, on the right side of a fluid front three, but his job was more about putting pressure on defenses and creating space for Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba.
This season Solskjaer moved Lingard to the number 10 role, a position that we know isn’t his. It only took Solskjaer three games to realize that wasn’t going to work. So he dropped Lingard and replaced him with Andreas Pereira.
And now it feels like Groundhog Day.
Just like Lingard, Andreas Pereira is an academy graduate. Like Lingard, he’s seen as an attacking player, but he’s praised much more for his work rate and defensive skills than any of his attacking ability. Like Lingard, he’s been deployed all over the field in hopes of finding his best position.
And now, just like Lingard, he’s getting the ‘forever young’ tab.
In September I chronicled how Pereira doesn’t offer United much of anything, regardless of position. In the subsequent games, it’s become apparent that he is at his best when playing as the number 10, though it’s important not to confuse “at his best” with “actually good.”
Despite being an attacking player with only 1 goal and 1 assist (0.85 xG and 2.17 xA - yikes) Pereira seems to be undroppable. His one goal this season came on a wild deflection. His assist came on the opening day of the season. His xA/90 is barely higher than Ashley Young’s despite playing 200 more minutes. He makes fewer key passes per 90 minutes than Lingard. And yet he’s started eleven straight Premier League matches dating back to August.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked about Pereira’s persistent selection, he responded that “Andreas is improving all the time,” and “he’s still a young boy.”
Except he’s not a young boy anymore. Pereira is already 23 and will be 24 in January. He’s been on five preseason tours under three different managers already. He’s had two full season loans out in La Liga.
Look, we all wanted Pereira to come good. It’s good for the club when players come through the academy. For the fans, he wowed us with a free kick on his debut in the League Cup against Ipswich. We all saw his potential and we all wanted him to get there.
Pereira only managed to make one Premier League appearance under van Gaal, which is understandable considering he was still a teen. When Mourinho came in he was sent out on loan, also understandable because he needed game time.
In year two, Mourinho wanted him to fight for his place at United, but Pereira chose to go back on loan. This was probably Pereira’s biggest mistake. He chose to return to La Liga, where he was comfortable, rather than go down to the Championship where he’d encounter a similar style of play to what he’d see in the Premier League.
He wasn’t bad in La Liga, but he didn’t light the world on fire either. He was deployed mostly on the wing where his attacking numbers were pretty underwhelming. It was pretty clear he wasn’t really an attacking player.
We were all excited when Pereira returned last season and looked set to have a role with United. It’s just that... he hasn’t. And at (almost) 24 years old, he probably isn’t.
Pereira still has his defenders, and they’ll tell you that he’s been bad because he hasn’t gotten a consistent run of games, or because he’s been played out of of position out on the wing. Two months ago, they weren’t wrong. But now, he has gotten a consistent run of games. He’s made 12 league starts including the last 11. Most of them have come as a number 10 where he’s failed to convince.
It’s time to face the music and realize that Pereira’s ceiling is ultimately to be another Jesse Lingard. There are just two problems with that:
- United already have a Jesse Lingard.
- Lingard is better than Pereira.
Those are fighting words I know, but look at the facts. Remember, Lingard is widely considered to be a late bloomer (hence all the ‘Lingard is a prospect’ jokes). He went out on loan four times and struggled for game time in each stint (as opposed to Pereira who played full seasons).
Lingard returned to United and scored his first goal at the age of 22 years, 10 months, and 23 days old. After Pereira’s League Cup goal against Ipswich, he didn’t score again until last March against Southampton (his first league goal). On that day he was 23 years, 2 months, and 2 days old, about four months older than Lingard was when he opened his account.
When United lined up against Villa on Sunday, Pereira was 23 years, 11 months, and 1 day old. He has three goals and two assists to his name for Manchester United. When Lingard was that exact age, he already had seven goals and six assists, including a goal in the FA Cup final.
Today Lingard has 30 goals and 19 assists in his Manchester United career. Can you really see Andreas Pereira getting to those numbers? What’s sad is those aren’t even that high.
When Lingard was coming through, he had to compete for playing time with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alexis Sánchez, and to a certain extent Wayne Rooney. Pereira is competing against a way past his prime Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard. The position has basically been his by default.
That’s not to say there aren’t things that Pereira does better than Lingard. He’s one of the best free kick takers at United and no one in the squad can cross a ball in like he can. Just look at the cross he made to set up Marcus Rashford’s header/Tom Heaton’s own goal.
That’s quality. The potential is there for everyone to see. The problem is: how often do we see it?
Remember, there’s a difference between potential and being a good player. Anthony Martial has the potential to be a world class center forward. We’ve all seen it. But we only see it maybe three out of every five games. Rashford has that potential too, but we only see it maybe five out of every eight games. That’s the difference between them being good players and world class forwards.
With Andreas, we see moments like this maybe once a game, every three games? That’s simply not enough. There have been hundreds of players who have this kind of quality and don’t make it because they can’t consistently show it. Andreas isn’t consistently showing it either.
Pereira’s attacking stats are pretty bad. He doesn’t score, he doesn’t get assists, and doesn’t really generate much of an attack for his team. He’s an ‘attacking player’ about whom the most positive thing we can mention is his work rate.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?