It’s a massive credit to and damning indictment of Jose Mourinho that he seems able to turn anyone into a solid defensive midfielder.
His most unorthodox conversion project yet is way ahead of schedule. Andreas Pereira — a 22-year-old Brazilian-Belgian who’s played just 14 matches for Manchester United despite joining the club in 2011 — was arguably the man of the match in Manchester United’s season-opening 2-1 victory over Leicester City.
Pereira did basically everything you could possibly want from a holding midfielder. He kept his position well, letting Fred and Paul Pogba stay farther forward (though Mourinho didn’t really let anyone attack with abandon), won the ball several times, and was tidy in possession.
Check out the locations where Pereira won the ball back and his very neat passing map, via Stats Zone.
Four clearances, three tackles, three interceptions, a blocked shot, and 91 percent passing accuracy — including six accurate long balls — are very nice numbers on their own. But it’s especially impressive that this performance came from Pereira, who just one year ago was a tricky attacker who didn’t appear to have any place at United.
Mourinho was critical of Pereira last season after he asked to go out on loan. After Pereira went to Valencia in La Liga, Mourinho spoke out about why he didn’t agree with his player’s decision to leave.
“Andreas Pereira was a personal decision that I don’t agree with. A decision I don’t think honestly is the best decision for him, a decision that disappoints me a little bit, because I think he has the potential to be here fighting for a position, for opportunities, and fighting to be a Manchester United player. You have to be ready to fight for a position and I am a bit disappointed that he left.”
But Pereira did well at Valencia, and he said it made him a better player.
“Here, I’m playing, I’m happy and I’m getting better. People see that, United see that, and it will help me, Valencia and Manchester United. If I go back then I’ll be a better player. I’m under pressure here, but in a positive way. I play against big teams in big stadiums.”
Pereira had to do a bit more defensive work than he was used to during his time at Valencia, but it was hardly preparation for the job he did against Leicester in United’s season opener on Friday.
For his entire career, Pereira has played high up the pitch and tried to create in attack by running at players. His dribbling is probably his best skill, or at least it appeared to be before this summer. But, lacking options in the center of midfield, Mourinho tried out Pereira in a deeper central role during preseason, and he played well. Still, it was a bit surprising to see Pereira in that position when the starting lineups came out.
And then Pereira, a flair player who couldn’t make it at Manchester United because of either an inability or unwillingness to do the simple things right, looked like a natural No. 6. He held his position perfectly, attacked like a pitbull when the ball came near him, and regularly laid off a simple pass to Fred or Pogba right after winning the ball.
Sure, it might be a bit disheartening that Mourinho has gone and “ruined” another entertaining player by making him into a safe defensive midfielder. But it’s also encouraging that Mourinho prefers Pereira — a player that has loads of skill with the ball at his feet — to Scott McTominay, the large and boring platonic ideal of the Mourinho ethos.
This is just one game. We can’t possibly tell where Andreas Pereira’s career is going. But it’s good news that he’s learned a new role, that he’s being given a shot at a future with United, and that Mourinho’s got some fresh ideas.