Why South American players tend to fail at Manchester United (Part 2)

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Following Manchester United’s first nine South American signings that were bought between 2000 and 2010, the club then purchased 11 more between 2011 and 2020. Those 11 purchases during the 2010s cost the club approximately £158.3 million in transfer fees, plus millions more in yearly wages. Over the last 10 years, inflation has greatly impacted the price of football transfers. Wealthy clubs began flexing their financial muscles more than ever in order to acquire various top-quality and in-demand players, which in turn has resulted in continuously increasing transfer fees. 

Moreover, as transfer fees grew, so did the high expectations that clubs and fans had for a given player to consistently perform and justify their price tag. For most of United’s South Americans that were bought in the 2010s, expectations were not met due to the same reasons that caused the likes of Verón, Kléberson and Anderson to have insignificant impacts at the club.

The failure to stay fit as well as adapt the physical nature of the Premier League once again hindered United’s South Americans from succeeding in England’s primary national league. In addition, the competitiveness at Manchester United was also a factor that regularly left the club’s South Americans talents out of the starting lineup.

With all that being said, let’s dive right into how United’s 11 South American transfers between 2011 and 2020 fared in Manchester.

Andreas Pereira (2011-Present) – WHY HE FAILED (So far…)

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The Brazilian startlet joined United’s academy in 2011 after impressing with PSV Eindhoven. He was also being scouted by the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, but Sir Alex Ferguson himself supposedly persuaded the youngster to join United.

Pereira signed his first professional contract in 2013 and made his senior debut in 2014. His ability to cover lots of ground during games and regularly press and win the ball from the opposition made him arguably the most exciting prospect to enter the Manchester United first team from the youth team.

An impressive run with the reserves during the 2014/15 season won him United’s Reserve Player of the Year award, which foreshadowed a possible increase in first team action the following campaign. The 2015/16 season saw Pereira make 11 appearances in all competitions and score his first goal for the club, which came in United’s League Cup win over Ipswich Town.

Still a budding youngster, Pereira was sent out on loan the following two seasons in order to play more consistent first team football. He joined Granada for the 2016/17 season and then Valencia the next year. The Brazilian impressed during his two years in La Liga, with Spanish journalist Vincente Bau lauding him as quite the influential player during his year with Valencia:

“When Andreas is on the pitch we improve in depth and in danger. It is true that as it is going at Valencia almost all players have raised their performances and it is not good to highlight just a single player, but it would be unfair not to elevate this young player on loan from Manchester United. He seemed set to be a substitute, but little by little he’s gaining the confidence of the coach and his team-mates.”

Pereira flourished in the No 10 role at Valencia and was heavily credited for his crossing ability and attacking movement in the final third. He ultimately succeeded in Spain, which prompted United fans to look forward to him becoming a first team regular for the 2018/19 season.

Despite all the hype, Pereira failed to live up to the high expectations during his first full season as a United regular. He made 22 appearances in all competitions and scored just one goal as United endured a disappointing campaign. The following season, Pereira played almost double the amount of games, but his struggles at United became far more evident. 

The Brazilian was scrutinized for his lack of ability to dictate play, as well as holding onto the ball for too long. Pereira’s decision making in the final third was also an area that hampered his success at United. This was often seen by the midfielder’s decision to shoot from long range as opposed to playing a smart and simple pass to a teammate in space. 

Due to his struggles and the arrival of Bruno Fernandes in January of that season, the midfielder lost his place in the starting 11. Ahead of the 2020/21 season, Pereira was sent on loan to Serie A side Lazio in order to rediscover his spark. 

Pereira is still contracted at Manchester United and is set to return to Old Trafford next season following the end of his loan spell in Italy. Having just turned 25 in January, Pereira has yet to hit the top of his game and will be hoping for the opportunity to prove himself at Old Trafford next season.

Ángelo Henríquez (2012-2015) – WHY HE FAILED

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Henríquez was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final South American signing, but the Chilean striker did not make a single first team appearance during his three year spell in Manchester. The striker signed in August 2012 from Universidad de Chile. After scoring 15 goals in 27 games the previous season, there was quite some excitement when United announced their acquisition of such a prosperous talent.

After impressing with the reserves, Henríquez was loaned out to Wigan Athletic for the remainder of the 2012/13 season in order to play more first-team football. He scored on his Premier League debut against Sunderland and was also a part of the Wigan squad that won the 2013 FA Cup. The Chilean may have hoped his time to shine at United would come the following season, but David Moyes sent him out on a season-long loan to Real Zaragoza.

It was the same story the following year, as Henríquez was once again loaned out,, this time to Dinamo Zagreb. Despite scoring 30 goals in 37 games in Croatia, Henríquez was still not in Manchester United’s first team plans, prompting the club to permanently sell the striker to Zagreb ahead of the 2015/16 season.

Out of Henríquez’s three years at United, two and half of them were spent out on loan. He was ultimately never given the opportunity to prove himself due to United’s star-studded lineup of strikers which at the time included Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Chicharito and Danny Welbeck. Henríquez was compared to Ruud van Nistelrooy before joining United, but after not playing a single senior game in Manchester, the Chilean striker failed to make his mark in England. 

Still only 26 years old, Henríquez rejoined his boyhood club, Universidad de Chile, in 2018 after three years in Zagreb and a short spell at Mexican club, Atlas.

Guillermo Varela (2013-2017) – WHY HE FAILED

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The first signing of the post-Ferguson era was one to forget. After impressing at the 2013 South American Youth Championship, Varela was handed a two-week trial at United before officially signing from Uruguayan side Peñarol one month later. A hard-working right-back, Varela stood out with his tenacious defensive qualities and ability to offer an additional attacking outlet. 

His debut season at Old Trafford was spent entirely with the reserves. The following season, he was sent on loan to Real Madrid Castilla, where he played 33 games. Varela returned to Manchester for the 2015/16 season and was involved with the United first team at last. He made his debut for the club in December 2015 against West Ham, almost two and half years after being announced as a United player. The right-back played 10 more times for United that season in what would ultimately prove to be his final 10 games for the club.

After playing just one pre-season game ahead of the 2016/17 campaign, he was loaned out for the year to Eintracht Frankfurt, before leaving United and re-joining Peñarol in 2017 on a permanent basis. Following one season back at Peñarol, Varela then joined FC Copenhagen. He is still contracted at the Danish club, but is spending the 2020/21 season on loan at Dynamo Moscow.

Unlike Henríquez, Varela was given the chance to prove himself in the first team, but much like fellow South American full-back Fabio Da Silva, Varela was simply not up to Manchester United’s standards. The Uruguayan struggled to keep up with the pace of his opponents in the Premier League, most notably seen by Philippe Coutinho bolting past him to score for Liverpool against United at Old Trafford. Quite simply, he was not at the level of play United desired from one their first team members.

Marcos Rojo (2014-2021) – WHY HE FAILED

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The first of three South Americans who joined during the Summer Transfer Window ahead of the 2014/15 season, Rojo was signed as the ideal replacement for Patrice Evra. After a very impressive 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign where he picked up a runners-up medal, the Argentinian defender joined United from Sporting Lisbon for £16 million. Upon his signing, Rojo was set to play as a left-wing back in Louis van Gaal’s preferred 3-5-2 system.

As well as his speed and physicality on defence, Rojo was also an aerial threat on offence. The defender was an exciting addition to a promising United team, but his debut season was marred with injuries, with Rojo playing just 26 games in all competitions. He did net his first goal for the club that season, scoring against Cambridge United in the FA Cup.

His second season at the club was very much like his first, as injuries held him back once again. Rojo was also developing an unwanted reputation as an error-prone defender, which caused him to frequently miss out on a place in the starting 11. He did start the 2016 FA Cup Final though, playing 66 minutes before getting subbed off after receiving a yellow card.

After his first two underwhelming years at United, Rojo had his best campaign in a United shirt during the 2016/17 season. He played 41 games in all competitions, as well as the full 90 minutes of the EFL Cup Final against Southampton. He unfortunately missed the Europa League final due to injury, but Rojo was lauded for an impressive season where he formed a surprisingly effective centre-back partnership with Phil Jones. 

With a 40+ game-season under his belt, United hoped for more of the same the next year. But sadly, the injury he sustained at the end of the 2016/17 season would continue to haunt for the remainder of his time at United. The Argentine made just 27 combined appearances in his final three seasons in Manchester. In January 2021, Rojo’s time at United ended permanently as he signed for Boca Juniors.

As well as the injuries, Rojo’s inconsistent performances were also a major factor that held him back from succeeding at United. The defender was often criticized for his lack of concentration and discipline on the pitch. He received unnecessary bookings for poorly-timed tackles, and for the majority of his time at Old Trafford, did not look like the composed defender the world saw play at the 2014 World Cup.

Angel Di Maria (2014-2015) – WHY HE FAILED

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Di Maria’s time at Manchester United epitomizes the struggles that South Americans have tended to have at the club. The Argentine arguably had the highest expectations of any United signing in history. He had just won the Champions League with Real Madrid, where he was named Man of the Match in the final, and was a key player in Argentina’s run to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final. Di Maria was playing the best football of his career, and looked set to continue that with United.

During his first handful of games in Manchester, fans were in awe of their new star signing. Di Maria scored three goals in his first five Premier League goals, which included a perfectly executed lob against Leicester City that was voted by fans as the Premier League’s Goal of the Season.

Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Di Maria in a United shirt. The rest of his time at the club resulted in a severe loss of form, as he lost his place on the wing to Ashley Young. Di Maria was then used out-of-position as a No 9 by Louis van Gaal, where he also did not perform. His final straw at United came in the club’s FA Cup quarter final clash with Arsenal, where he was sent off for diving and grabbing the shirt of the referee.

The Argentinian made his final appearance for the club in United’s final-day goalless draw with Hull City, where he was subbed off in the first half due to injury. He ended the season and eventually his career at United with a total of four goals in 32 appearances in all competitions. Di Maria joined Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2015, where he has since re-discovered his form and won numerous domestic titles.

Looking back at his short time at Old Trafford, Di Maria failed for various reasons. To start, he was unable to effectively settle into life in Manchester. Despite being alongside many Spanish-speaking teammates including David De Gea, Juan Mata and his compatriot Marcos Rojo, Di Maria admitted that his already poor English actually got worse during his first six months in England. When asked whether he was progressing at learning English, he told FIFA’s in-house magazine: “More like regressing! It’s very bad. [I’ve learned] very little & only understand a small bit.” This would’ve hindered him at properly gelling with the English speaking cohort of the United team.

In addition to the language barrier, Di Maria’s home was subject to an attempted robbery, which obviously made life in Manchester much less appealing for him and his family. With regards to his issues on the pitch, the Argentinian was yet another example of a South American player who failed to adapt to the physical nature of the Premier League. Di Maria is not as tall or built as the average Premier League defender. His lack of physical strength caused him to be ineffective against the dogged defences that United played against week in week out.

At the time of his signing, Di Maria’s transfer was the highest fee ever paid by a British club. Coupled with being given United’s iconic number 7 shirt, he had quite the hype to live up to. While everyone wanted him to succeed in England, it just was not meant to be as another pricey South American star failed to win over the United faithful.

Radamel Falcao (2014-2015) – WHY HE FAILED

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This one still hurts to think about. In his prime, Falcao was one of the most lethal strikers in world football. Between 2011 and 2013, he won the Portuguese domestic double with Porto, the Copa Del Rey with Atlético Madrid and the Europa League with each of the two teams. The cherry on top was his inclusion in the 2012 FIFAPro World11 alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta. 

His electric form earned him a big-money move to AS Monaco where he scored 11 goals in 19 games during his debut campaign. But why did he play so little? Mid-way through the 2013/14 season, Falcao tore his ACL. As a result, he missed the rest of his debut campaign with Monaco, as well as the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

After making his recovery and playing in a few pre-season games for the French side ahead of the 2014/15 season, Manchester United signed the striker on a season long loan. United also had the option to buy Falcao permanently at the end of the loan spell. This deadline-day loan signing was one of Manchester United’s most exciting buys in recent history. Fans were thrilled to see the Colombian play alongside Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in Louis van Gaal’s new-look United side. His first goal for the club came almost a month after his debut, where he scored the winner in a 2-1 victory over Everton at Old Trafford. After that goal, ‘El Tigre’ looked to catch fire and take the Premier League by the storm. 

As we all know though, that was not at all the case. While many criticized Van Gaal’s treatment of Falcao, the Colombian struggled to adapt to the English game. Over the course of the year, it was clear that an attacking-minded striker like Falcao was not a great fit in Van Gaal’s ‘defend from the front’ system. He scored just four goals in 29 appearances in all competitions and was named one of the worst signings of the 2014/15 season by multiple media outlets.

During his glory days, Falcao was a ferocious poacher who capitalized on every chance he got. His eye for goal and ability to also score with his weaker foot made him so dangerous when he was in front of goal. The Colombian’s hold-up play was also second to none as he frequently used his physicality to play off the shoulder of an opposing last defender. Many esteemed names in football, including Pep Guardiola and Fabio Capello, claimed Falcao was at the same level as Ronaldo and Messi, that is before he sustained that ACL injury in 2014.

The effects of the injury were evident at Manchester United, as most of Falcao’s problems on the pitch were due to an evident decline in pace and agility. He struggled to take on defenders, and looked nervous on the ball. Furthermore, his inability to contribute effectively to an attacking build-up, as well as his lingering fitness and injury problems, kept him from getting back to his best at United.

A poor season in Manchester led to the club not opting to purchase Falcao permanently. Monaco sent the striker on loan once again the following season, this time United’s Premier League rivals Chelsea. He struggled greatly in London, scoring just one goal in 12 games.

Two dismal loan spells in England would have surely dropped Falcao’s confidence levels, but during the 2016/17 season, he returned to Monaco and played a vital role in their Ligue 1 title triumph. The Colombian scored 30 goals in 43 games that season and had seemingly rediscovered his goalscoring instincts. Two years later, Falcao left Monaco permanently and joined Galatasaray. In one and a half seasons in Turkey, ‘El Tigre’ has scored 19 goals in 36 games.

Sergio Romero (2015-Present) – WHY HE SUCCEEDED

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Romero was United’s Mr. Reliable with regards to being a second-choice goalkeeper. The Argentinian international was signed knowing he would be David De Gea’s understudy, yet relished the opportunity to play for one of the world’s biggest football clubs.

Many have called Romero the best second-choice keeper in United’s history, and those claims may be true especially given the Argentine’s achievements in Manchester. After signing on a free transfer ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, Romero played in United’s first four league games of the season due to ongoing speculation that David De Gea was heading to Real Madrid. The Argentine kept three clean sheets in those four games, which were his only Premier League appearances that season. 

Over the course of his time at United, the keeper was primarily used in cup competitions, and was the team’s first choice during their 2016/17 Europa League winning campaign. Romero played in 12 of United’s 15 games during the tournament, including the final where he kept a clean sheet in the 2-0 win over Ajax. Out of Romero’s 61 total United appearances, 28 were in Europe, 26 were in the FA and League Cup combined, and just seven were in the Premier League.

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He’s still contracted at the club, but Romero has yet to play a game this season, let alone be included in a match-day squad. The Argentine may currently be United’s fourth-choice goalkeeper and set to leave the club this summer, but Romero did everything right throughout his United career. His performance during United’s 2016/17 Europa League win, as well as a string of memorable saves during various cup games made him a fan favourite and ultimately a valuable member of the first-team squad. 

Fred (2018-Present) – JURY’S OUT

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Fred’s two and a half seasons at United have still left fans wondering whether it was indeed worth spending £47 million on the Brazilian midfielder. After five years at Shakhtar Donetsk, Fred was signed by Jose Mourinho before the midfielder joined up with the Brazilian squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. He did not play a single minute at the tournament in Russia, but given his transfer fee, Fred was expected to slot right into the United starting lineup ahead of the 2018/19 season.

The Brazilian international made a fair start to life at Old Trafford and scored his first goal in September against Wolves. But after opening his account at United, his performances became sluggish, especially with regards to his frequently mis-placed passes, and inability to shoot from distance. He was also unable to form an effective partnership with any of his fellow midfielders. That is until the 2019/20 season.

As United moved away from Mourinho’s 4-3-3 formation, Ole Gunnar Solskjær began to use a 4-2-3-1 lineup, where Fred improved drastically. Playing as one of two central midfielders, Fred was able to better showcase his physicality and athleticism when playing right in front of United’s two centre-backs. He was a regular in Solskjær’s starting lineup and was either partnered alongside Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba or Scott McTominay. 

During his resurgent 2019/20 campaign, Fred played 48 games and was also named in the Europa League Team of the Season. Fred has once again been a regular in the starting lineup this season (2020/21), but inconsistent performances have hindered him from winning over his critics. A dismal display against Leicester in the FA Cup quarter finals highlighted that Fred has yet to truly establish himself in Manchester.

The midfielder spoke out about the constant criticism. He told Globo Esporte: “I suffered a lot of criticism from the press and the fans, but I always kept motivating myself, working. I never dropped the shuttlecock. I was even treated as a ‘flop’, a contract that doesn’t pay. But I kept working my best.”

Despite all the negative talk, Fred has still remained an integral part of Solskjær’s promising United team mainly because he’s rarely someone on the injury list, unlike a few of his fellow midfielders. Having just turned 28, Fred still has time to prove himself at United as he approaches the end of his third year at Old Trafford.

Alex Telles (2020-Present) – JURY’S OUT

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The Brazilian signed from FC Porto for £15.4 million and made his debut in United’s memorable 2-1 win over PSG in the Champions League. One of the most compelling parts of Telles’ game is his playmaking abilities as a defender. Telles was a set-piece specialist at Porto and has assumed the role as United’s corner taker when on the pitch. The full-back is also known for bolting past opposing wingers and defenders to offer an additional attacking outlet for his team. When given space on the flank, Telles can almost always whip in a perfect cross for a striker to get their head on.

Despite having all the ingredients to succeed at United, he has failed to break into the starting lineup this season for one reason and one reason only: Luke Shaw. The 2020/21 campaign has undeniably been Shaw’s best season in a Manchester United shirt. His impeccable form has limited Telles to appearances in the domestic cup and the Europa League.

Telles has made 18 appearances in all competitions since arriving in October 2020, and it is still very early in his time at United to give a verdict on whether he has succeeded or failed at Old Trafford so far.

Edinson Cavani (2020-Present) – WHY HE FAILED

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The 34-year-old striker is well past his prime, and his debut season at Manchester United is evidence of that. After being released by PSG in the summer of 2020, Cavani signed a one-year deal with United with the option to extend for an additional year. 

The Uruguayan international is one of the most intelligent strikers on the planet, with his movement off the ball and ability to create space arguably his most valuable assets. Cavani would get into great positions and capitalize on every scoring opportunity he got. His biggest issue is that he has grown quite injury-prone, and that has hindered him from performing at the highest level in Manchester.

Cavani has scored seven goals in 26 games this season as of March 2021, and since the new year, has missed multiple important games due to injury. Recent rumours have also suggested that Cavani is ready to leave England and finish his career in South America, a potential hint that the Uruguayan may not have settled well in Manchester.

United knew they were not getting the Cavani of old, but while Anthony Martial continues to struggle this season, many hoped to see the Uruguayan feature more prominently, especially during the business end of United’s season.

The striker has been a key figure for Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood to learn from, and his short time at United has not been a complete disaster, but given the fact that he has only made 13 starts for the club, his inability to stay fit has not allowed United to reap the benefits of having a world-class striker at their disposal.

Facundo Pellistri (2020-Present) – JURY’S OUT

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Still just 19 years of age, Pellistri has yet to play for the United first team following his transfer in October 2020. Like Varela, the young Uruguayan was signed from Peñarol and has since impressed with United’s reserves.

He was sent out on loan for the rest of the 2020/21 season to La Liga club Deportivo Alavés in order to gain some first team experience. The right winger’s key attributes include his strategic vision and his agility. As seen by his flair on the pitch for United’s U23s, Pellistri can maneuver quickly and is not afraid to take on defenders.

United fans have every right to get excited about the talented Uruguayan ahead of his potential first team debut next season.

So there it is! Part 2 of Anthony Khoury‘s Why South American players tend to fail at Manchester United series. Be sure to check out Part 1 and follow Anthony on social media below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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