Manchester United registered a 10th win in 12 Premier League matches under interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who faces adversity in the form of a busy medical department.
This latest win over Southampton didn’t come easy. United trailed before striking twice in six minutes. However, the lead was short-lived, forcing the Red Devils to leave it very late.
Romelu Lukaku’s brace (including the all-important winner) to continue his resurgence under Solskjaer will be the immediate takeaway. But there was a tactical switch that deserves equal coverage and could even have a long-lasting impact.
It came just after the 52nd minute when United were searching for the equaliser having gone behind to a stunning Yann Valery strike before the half-hour mark. A struggling Alexis Sanchez, making a second consecutive league start, made way for Portuguese right-back Diogo Dalot after sustaining a serious knock, which could rule him out for two months.
Solskjaer now has nine United players out injured, and in this case the act of replacing a forward with a full-back, in turn, meant the interim boss had to switch things up formation-wise.
And so he decided to re-deploy central midfielder Andreas Pereira in a deep-lying forward role – such as that which we have seen from Jesse Lingard in Solskjaer’s split-striker system – with the aforementioned Lukaku and Marcus Rashford either side of him.
The move was instantly rewarded. Mere seconds later, the 23-year-old Belgian-born Brazilian international had levelled proceedings. Having picked up a pass from Dalot, Pereira surged towards goal before unleashing a thunderous strike past Angus Gunn. It was his second goal for United and first in the league.
The 30-minute false nine
Once level, and no longer in chase mode, United started to dictate proceedings and found a second goal. Pereira, taking to his newfound responsibilities, would tee up Lukaku to score his third goal in two outings.
During his 30 minutes in the new role, Pereira was one of three United players to successfully complete a take-on (1), the others being Dalot (1) and Lukaku (2).
In terms of creativity, he created a single chance (the assist), with only Dalot (2) surpassing his efforts. They were the only United players to fashion goalscoring opportunities while Pereira was playing in the hole.
He would have one shot on goal with only Dalot, Lukaku and Rashford – all producing two – beating him in that regard.
Understandably, given Pereira was taking up spaces close to Southampton’s penalty area, there were fewer occasions in which he had possession. He continued to drop in, though, playing between the midfield and forward lines.
United’s number 15 made way for promising teenager Tahith Chong, the Dutchman making his long-awaited Premier League debut with eight minutes remaining. Pereira would touch the ball 14 times and complete nine of his 11 attempted passes giving him a success rate of 82%, before coming off on the hour mark.
His efforts upon taking up the more advanced role stood in stark contrast to Sanchez. The much-maligned Chilean winger, playing at the tip of United’s diamond, struggled to impose himself. Across his 52-minute cameo, Sanchez wouldn’t complete a single take-on, get a shot on goal or create an opportunity for his teammates. He did, however, complete 20 of his 23 attempted passes. Though one would expect more incisive play from the former Arsenal dynamo.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel: sqwk.at/Squawka-Sub
Like a duck to water?
Solskjaer’s move certainly raised some eyebrows. Pereira’s inclusion in United’s starting line-up was the result of a busy program and an extensive injury list. It was just his fourth league start of this season, having now made nine Premier League appearances overall.
Since joining Manchester United from Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in January 2012, he has often been on the outside looking in. After debuting under Louis van Gaal, Pereira would go on to enjoy loan spells at Granada and Valencia with his long-term future at Old Trafford seemingly in doubt.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 2, 2019
Under three coaches, and before this weekend, Pereira would make no fewer than 25 appearances for the 20-time English champions. Nominally an attacking midfielder, he’d be utilised across six different positions, including on either flank and sitting in front of United’s defence.
He is no stranger to having played behind a centre-forward, but operating in the false nine role is a different proposition altogether. His natural instincts to be on the front foot really came to the fore following Solskjaer’s instructions. Such was his seamless transition it raises the question of his current status, being this versatile must give Solskjaer some pause for thought. The Paris Saint-Germain game is up next and another attacker, Anthony Martial, has been ruled out while Paul Pogba must complete a suspension after his dismissal in the Manchester leg.
And so Pereira’s performance further up the pitch against Southampton offers a lifeline, one which could allow Solskjaer to patch up his injury-hit attack for the biggest test of his time in charge of United so far.