Youngsters stake a claim for number 10
There is, it seems, something attractive about youngsters with a complex identity. In 2014 Adnan Januzaj settled, after no little debate in at least three countries, for a place with the Belgian national side. Januzaj burst onto the scene as one of the few players to emerge with genuine credit through the failed David Moyes experiment, earning a trip to the World Cup finals in Brazil with Belgium. While the 20-year-old suffered a ‘difficult second season’ under new manager Louis van Gaal, this summer the focus has switched to Andreas Pereira, another outrageously talented Belgium-born teenager.
Born in Duffel – and an international representative of the Red Devils at three age groups – Pereira now dons the yellow of Brazil and stared for the Seleção at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup earlier this summer. It has been a busy few months for the former PSV Eindhoven player, with a new contract inked in May, and a headline-grabbing performance against San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday night. All signs point to Pereira’s inclusion in Van Gaal’s first team plans for the coming season.
Indeed, the 19-year-old’s smartly taken headed goal, in the second of four games on this summer’s short tour of the United States, prompted Van Gaal to call out the midfielder’s performance. Over 45 second-half minutes, operating in a central creative role, Pereira linked well with striker James Wilson, bursting late into the box to head home after an hour. It sealed a solid win for the visitors at the Avaya Stadium.
Pereira joined United’s academy from PSV in 2011 and first signed a professional deal at the start of 2013, but his Old Trafford future remained in doubt for much of last season with the midfielder’s contract running down. Two first team appearances late in the campaign, including a début against Tottenham Hotspur described by the player as a “dream come true,” may have convinced Pereira to sign on until at least 2018.
The player’s goal on Wednesday was his first in Van Gaal’s team, albeit just one of what could be many for the club in the coming years if talent is translated in to performances. Pereira’s high-quality first touch, powerful shot and genuine creativity mark the Brazilian out as high-class prospect for a range of attacking midfield roles.
Still, his future, like many youngsters coming through at Old Trafford, remains uncertain. Not least given the range of competition in the positions Pereira typically operates. Many of the midfielder’s better performances for United’s Under-21 side have come at ‘number 10’, although the player is seemingly equally comfortable coming in off either flank as – in modern parlance – a “false winger.” In each role Van Gaal now possesses at least two international-standard options.
“I’m very happy that I scored my first goal and we won the game,” Pereira told MUTV on Wednesday. “I have to do well to try to impress the manager, try to impress everyone, so I can continue with the first team and do well this season.”
“I think it’s important for me to play in different positions. If the boss tells me to play on the left or behind the striker, I play where he tells me to play so it’s no problem for me.”
With Van Gaal deploying a loose 4-2-3-1 formation over the past two games Pereira’s options are stronger than if the Dutchman switches, as many expect, to a more traditional 4-3-3 formation at the start of the campaign. Juan Mata, Memphis Depay and Ashley Young were deployed behind Wayne Rooney on Wednesday and against Club America at the weekend; Pereira joined Wilson, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard for the second half of both matches. Angel di Maria, if he remains at the club beyond this summer, and Marouane Fellaini will also vie for roles in either formation.
The goal against the Quakes, together with a smart performance in Seattle during United’s opening tour game, have garnered the boss’ attention less than three weeks before the campaign proper kicks off.
“I liked the goal of Pereira,” admitted Van Gaal in the aftermath of Wednesday’s game. “It was a beautiful goal, a beautiful attack also, and he’s not so big. But, at the right moment, there’s the gap and the header is also very good. I like this goal but, of course, I like every goal that Manchester United can score!”
If Pereira’s star is on the rise, then Januzaj faces a long road back into Van Gaal’s first team planning. Januzaj made just 21 appearances last season, with 13 coming off the bench, in what proved to be a hugely disappointing post-World Cup campaign. More than just the lack of stand-out games for the club, in a goalless campaign, Van Gaal’s apparent lack of trust has precipitated speculation that Januzaj could leave United permanently this summer. This is a long way from the £25 million bid for the player launched by Paris Saint German just 18 months ago.
Still, a summer fitness programme in Dubai, which included Luke Shaw, has apparently paid rapid dividends, with Januzaj featuring, like Pereira, as a second-half substitute in both games on tour. Also in common with Pereira the Belgian international has eyes on a role at number 10 for the club – one that has been filled over the past year by Rooney, Mata and Fellaini to various degrees of success.
“I like the position,” Januzaj told MUTV. “As a young player, I always played there, as a number 10. Only in the last two or three years have I been playing on the wing and also sometimes as a striker. The position I prefer is behind the striker but I’m happy to play wherever the manager wants me to play.”
Certainly, Januzaj’s flexibility should appeal to Van Gaal’s Dutch sensibilities; the player’s dedication to getting fit will also have won supporters in the veteran’s coaching party.
“We decided to do it because this season we have to do better than last season,” he added. “Last season, I didn’t have many games but this year I have to be fit and get as many games as I can. I wanted to work hard and achieve something this season. I think it has helped already as I feel I am getting stronger.”
Neither Januzaj or Pereira is likely to start the campaign against Spurs at Old Trafford on 8 August, although Van Gaal’s lack of striking options means that he will pack the team with attacking midfield talent. For the time being Herrera, Young and Mata remain in prime position to support lone striker Rooney. Yet, the ability for the Dutchman to call on both youngsters in the coming months should add creativity and goals to a team that often lacked both last season.
Indeed, with Van Gaal recruiting two defensive-minded midfielders in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin this summer, many believe United’s manager will be emboldened to approach this campaign with a little less reservation than last. Certainly, the pressure to reach the top four is now eased, although the Premier League will be no less competitive in the months to come.
For two youngsters it could just be a key season – a breakthrough for one, and the positive comeback that another has worked hard to achieve.