Why South American players tend to fail at Manchester United (Part 1)

Over the years, an array of foreign talents have played for Manchester United, with some having become a part of the club’s folklore. The likes of Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Cristiano Ronaldo are prime examples of non-British icons who contributed to United’s success in numerous ways. The club’s board have invested a great deal in foreign recruitment, but there has yet to be a South American player to genuinely captivate the Old Trafford faithful.

Various signings came to United with high expectations to succeed based on consistent, stellar performances for their previous clubs. United have only signed three South Americans from fellow Premier League clubs, so most others had to adjust not only to the physicality of the Premier League, but also to life in England. United signed their first South American player in 2001, and since then, 20 more have put on the famous red shirt. Here’s a breakdown of what nations were represented by United’s 21 past and present South Americans:

Brazil: 7
Argentina: 6
Uruguay: 4
Chile: 2
Ecuador: 1
Colombia: 1

Over 80% of the South Americans who have played for Manchester United are from the continent’s three World Cup-winning nations. Despite glimpses of promise from almost all 21 players, a South American talent has yet to establish themselves as an eternal club legend. Bar a few names who were good servants to the club, many ultimately failed to adapt to the climate of the English game and the high expectations that Manchester United set out for them.

Manchester United signed nine South American players between 2000 and 2010, so here’s an in depth look at how each one fared during their spells at Old Trafford:

Juan Sebastian Veron (2001-2003) – WHY HE FAILED

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Having previously played his football in Argentina and Italy, Veron came to England with a lot to live up to. He was not only the first player from the South American continent to play for United, but he was also the most expensive transfer in English football when the deal was made.

Veron joined the club during a period where Sir Alex Ferguson looked to transition from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 system in order to bolster United as a counter-attacking side. His range of passing and awareness on the ball were the two primary attributes that made him one of the best midfielders of his time.

The Argentinian midfielder made a dream start to his United career, as he scored in three of his first four Premier League games. He won the Premier League Player of the Month award for September, making him the first Argentinian and second South American to win the monthly honour at the time. From there, it looked like Veron was going to kick it into high gear for the rest of the season. As most football fans know though, this was not at all the case.

Quite simply, Veron could not adapt to the pace of the English game. He was a player who needed time and space on the ball, but given the nature of the Premier League, that was never going to be a reality for him. The Argentinian struggled to gel with fellow midfielders David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. It was also revealed that Roy Keane, Veron’s usual partner in central midfield, was very tough on the Argentine. This made it even more difficult for Veron to form a fruitful bond with his fellow midfielders. 

Given the Premier League’s fast paced environment which Veron could not adjust to, most of the midfielder’s better performances came in the Champions League. During the Group Stage and the early knockout rounds, the tempo of Champions League football was much slower than that of the Premier League, much to Veron’s liking. Four of his six goals during his second season at United came in the Champions League, with performances against Maccabi Haifa, Olympiacos and Bayer Leverkusen the highlight of his sophomore year at the club. 

All in all, Veron did not succeed at Manchester United largely because of the immense pressure that was on him following the big-money transfer, and his failure to adapt the physicality and high-tempo of the Premier League. Veron spent two full seasons at United, playing 82 games and scoring 11 times. He did leave the club a Premier League champion following United’s title win in 2003. 

Diego Forlan (2002-2004) – WHY HE FAILED

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The Uruguayan legend went on to become one of Europe’s most prolific strikers during his time with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, but his spell at United was arguably one to forget. Forlan joined the club in January 2002, signing from Argentinian side Independiente for £6.9 million. Manchester United was the first European club that Forlan played for, so the biggest talking points were regarding whether the young talent was the right fit for the English side.

The striker was signed based on his energy and quickness on and off the ball. Yet, this often left him out of position and out of touch with United’s compact structure. Forlan was United’s third-choice striker behind Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but he always worked hard and relished every minute he got on the pitch. Forlan’s high work-ethic is undeniable, but as his figures show, he lacked the execution to break into United’s starting lineup. 

During his first half-season at the club, Forlan made 18 appearances, scoring zero goals. The following campaign, the Uruguayan found the back of the net nine times in 45 games, and then eight times in 32 games the next year. He finished his time at United with 17 goals in 98 games while also collecting a Premier League, FA Cup and Community Shield winners medal.

While many are still wary of calling Forlan a flop given his inexperience at the time, he ultimately failed to meet United’s high standards and was sold to Villarreal at the start of the 2004/05 season. United fans are still quite fond of Forlan because of the quick-fire double that steered United to a 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield.

Kléberson (2003-2005) – WHY HE FAILED

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Kléberson was signed by United following his inspiring performances during Brazil’s 2002 FIFA World Cup triumph. His memorable highlights from that World Cup include his tackle on Paul Scholes that helped set up Brazil’s equalizer against England, as well as his assist for Ronaldo in the final against Germany. He was a tenacious central midfielder who was always hungry to get on the ball and dictate play. 

As United’s first ever Brazilian player, many thought the World Cup winner would bring a sense of flair and excitement to the club. Unfortunately, United and their fans were left disappointed once again. The Brazilian’s two seasons in Manchester were plagued with injuries. He failed to make 20 appearances in each of his two campaigns at the club, and only scored twice in a total of 30 games for United.

Like Forlan, Manchester United was Kléberson’s first European club, but unlike his Uruguayan counterpart, the Brazilian had a World Cup winning campaign under his belt, so expectations were evidently higher. The Premier League was thus too physically demanding for Kléberson to consistently stay fit, as well as too possession-based for him to have any significant impact when he was on the pitch. He told goal.com: “When I came to Man Utd I tried to change the player I was, more passes, more aggression, more tackles, but it’s too hard and wasn’t what my game was about.

“It was a difficult time, and when you see a lot of evaluation from your performance at top teams the criticism can be very high, particularly at Man Utd.”

The pressure of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world ultimately got to him. In terms of silverware, he won an FA Cup winners medal in 2004 despite not playing in the final.

Gabriel Heinze (2004-2007) – WHY HE SUCCEEDED

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The Argentinian defender was the first South American at United who managed to achieve relative success. He signed from Paris Saint-Germain in 2004 and immediately became a fan favourite. Heinze scored on his United debut and was used by Ferguson as the club’s first-choice left-back during the 2004/05 campaign. 

Heinze gained recognition for his defensive prowess, especially with regards to his well-timed tackles. He provided United with quite the physical presence at left-back and moreover, adapted well to the aggressiveness of the Premier League. Despite a trophy-less debut season, Heinze finished off an impressive personal campaign by winning United’s Player of the Year, which made him the first non-European recipient of the annual award.

Buoyed by his excellent start to life at United, he and the club were hoping for more of the same in his second season. Unluckily, Heinze picked up a season-ending injury during a Champions League game against Villarreal in early September. The injury prompted United to buy Patrice Evra in the January Transfer Window of the 2005/06 season, and the Frenchman then took Heinze’s place as United’s starting left-back.

Heinze made his return to the team in the 2006/07 campaign and despite losing his spot at left-back, he did feature prominently at center-half due to various defensive injuries throughout the season. The Argentine picked up a Premier League winners medal, his first and only honour with the club, and also captained the squad in what proved to be his final two games for the club. 

Overall, Heinze was a decent success at United simply because he did everything that was asked of him. While he wasn’t a long-term sensation, he is still remembered as a player who served the club well in his short time there. 

Anderson (2007-2015) – WHY HE FAILED

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Anderson joined United from FC Porto as a 19-year-old in 2007 and had been lauded as arguably the best young talent in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. He brought youthful energy to the Manchester United midfield and was praised most notably for his body strength and vision on the ball. Upon his arrival, he looked to be the perfect successor to Paul Scholes in the United midfield.

The Brazilian was a regular in the first team during his debut season and played a total of 38 games in all competitions. One of those 38 games was the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea. Anderson came off the bench in extra time, scored in the penalty shootout, and was crowned a Champions League winner at just 20 years of age. After a bright start to life at United, Anderson won the Golden Boy in 2008, an annual award given to the best young player in Europe under the age of 21.

It looked like Anderson was destined to become a United legend, but after his second season at the club, it started to look like the beginning of the end of the former wonderkid. Injuries and a constant lack of match-fitness plagued the Brazilian midfielder and after the 2008/09 campaign, he only made at least 30 appearances in one of the following five seasons. 

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Anderson looked increasingly off the pace after every injury he sustained, and the once agile, youthful midfielder had dwindled down to an injury-prone squad player. His numbers at United were not that stellar either. It took Anderson until his third season  (2009/10) at the club to score his first United goal and midway through his fourth season to score his second. He finished his career in Manchester with just nine goals and 21 assists in a total of 181 appearances.

After playing just eight times during the first half of the 2013/14 season, he was loaned out to Fiorentina for the remainder of the campaign before permanently leaving the club that summer. Everyone wanted Anderson to succeed, but his failure to keep fit held him back from achieving greatness for both club and country. There was surely immense pressure on him to perform after winning the Golden Boy in 2008, and the Brazilian ultimately failed to live up to his full potential. 

Carlos Tevez (2007-2009) – WHY HE SUCCEEDED

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United fans have mixed feelings about Tevez, but there’s no denying the impact he made in his two years at the club. The Argentinian joined United on an initial two-year loan deal from West Ham. The transfer was then made permanent half way through the loan following Tevez’s incredible first year at Old Trafford. He played an integral role in United’s Premier League and Champions League triumphs that season, scoring 19 goals in all competitions, as well as the first spot-kick in the Champions League final penalty shootout against Chelsea. 

The following season, Tevez grew increasingly frustrated after losing his place in the starting lineup. The arrival of Dimitar Berbatov and the prolific scoring form of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney limited Tevez’s opportunities to start games. He still scored 15 goals in all competitions, but he ultimately fell-out with the club and joined rivals Manchester City in the summer of 2009.

Regardless of the manner in which he left the club, Tevez was the dynamic, versatile striker United needed to partner Rooney and Ronaldo. His movement in the box and ability to exploit space in the attacking third made him one of the most dangerous strikers in world football. Tevez delivered in terms of goalscoring and overall attacking play during his time at United. He scored 34 goals in 99 games for the club and was part of one of the greatest squads in the history of the club.

Fabio Da Silva (2008-2014) – WHY HE FAILED

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Known by many as the less-successful Da Silva, Fabio fought his way into the United first team, but his time in the limelight did not last very long. Fabio joined United in 2008 along with his twin brother Rafael. The pair were 18 at the time and were seemingly brought in as potential replacements for the aging Gary Neville, John O’Shea and Wes Brown. 

During his debut season, Fabio only played twice, with both appearances coming in the FA Cup. He made his Premier League and Champions League debuts the following season, but still found game-time limited.

His breakthrough campaign came during the 2010/11 season where he featured 25 times for the first team and scored his first two goals for the club. Fabio’s impressive performances that season were evident, as the Brazilian was rewarded with a place in the starting lineup for the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona.

Ahead of the 2011/12 season, many hoped the Brazilian would finally take off and flourish at United, but Fabio found his first team opportunities limited once again the following season, playing just 15 games. The next year, Fabio joined QPR on loan in order to play more consistent first team football. He then returned to United and played three games during the first half of the 2013/14 season before being sold to Cardiff on a permanent deal in January 2014. He ultimately found his level of play with the Championship side, and has since played for Middlesbrough and Nantes.

He was a valiant, quick, hard-working full back who could also be used in midfield, but his playing style often lacked the conviction and structure United were looking for in a defender.

Rafael Da Silva (2008-2015) – WHY HE SUCCEEDED

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Unlike his brother, Rafael will forever be a fan favourite at Old Trafford. He made his United debut during the Premier League opener of the 2008/09 season against Newcastle and from there, he steadily became increasingly comfortable with the pace of the English game.

Under Alex Ferguson, Rafael played 130 games and was seen as the ideal successor to Gary Neville at right-back. The Brazilian was a strong-willed full-back who offered United an additional outlet on the attack. He was quick to move forward and even quicker to get back. The Brazilian also improved his body strength throughout his time at United in order to better adapt to the physical demands of the Premier League. 

By the 2012/13 season he had cemented himself as United’s first choice right-back, and he made 40 appearances that year as United won their 20th league title. After Ferguson’s retirement, Rafael played only 40 times the following two seasons combined, and was then sold to Lyon by Louis van Gaal in 2015. He spent five years at the French club before joining Turkish side İstanbul Başakşehir in September 2020.

His willingness to always improve and adjust to United’s style of football was the most significant reason for his success at the club. When Ferguson gave him an opportunity, he delivered and made sure the manager did not regret his decision. Rafael is a prime example of how hard work and dedication will pay-off.

Antonio Valencia (2009-2019) – WHY HE SUCCEEDED

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Valencia was the first Ecuadorian to play for United after joining from Wigan in 2009. He was seen by many as an underwhelming replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, but the winger turned full-back proved many of his doubters wrong. He played 49 games, scored seven goals and provided 13 assists during his debut campaign, and asserted himself as United’s starting right-winger. 

While he wasn’t the most prolific goalscorer, his pace and work ethic week in week out made him one of the most enjoyable players to watch during his first few seasons at United. After winning United’s Player of the Year award in 2012, he was given the iconic number seven shirt the following year. Was he to truly be Ronaldo’s replacement at the club? Not quite.

Valencia endured a tough 2012/13 campaign, scoring just once in 40 games. He then switched his shirt number back to 25 ahead of the 2013/14 season in the hopes of rediscovering his form. The Ecuadorian was a regular in the squad during David Moyes’ and Louis van Gaal’s time at the club. It was Van Gaal who began utilizing Valencia as a right-back, and after a series of impressive performances, he was permanently used in that position for the rest of his time at United.

Following the retirement of Michael Carrick in 2018, Valencia was made permanent United captain, which was a testament to his immense growth and hard work at the club. In his first and only season as captain, he made just nine appearances due to a lingering injury and was then released by the club in the summer of 2019. Valencia is the longest serving South American in United’s history and also holds the record for the most Premier League appearances by any South American player. 

A true warrior on the pitch, Valencia’s tireless efforts in a Manchester United shirt both at right-wing, right-back and as club captain arguably makes him the most successful South American to play for the red half of Manchester.  

part 2 coming soon

So there it is! Part 1 of Anthony Khoury‘s Why South American players tend to fail at Manchester United series. Be sure to follow Anthony on social media below, and subscribe to TheMastermindSite.com via email. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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