It is fair to say that Marco Silva’s first season at Fulham couldn’t have gone much better. Faced with the task of swiftly setting aside the scars of relegation and repairing the ruptures in a fractured squad he inherited from Scott Parker, the Portuguese head coach masterminded one of the most memorable campaigns in the club’s history. Abandoning the cautious approach of his predecessor, Silva and his coaches threw caution to the wind and implored their new charges to express themselves on the field, overhauling a stale philosophy in favour of something that reminded seasoned Fulham followers of a blend between the sublime styles of Jean Tigana and Slavisa Jokanovic.
There’s no denying that much of Fulham’s artistry was supplied by the twinkle-toes of Fabio Carvalho, a star of the Motspur Park academy who wasn’t trusted with a starting spot in the senior side until Parker’s team had been condemned to the drop. The Lisbon-born but Balham-moulded attacking midfielder proved a revelation in the number ten role, playing the fearlessness of youth but also with a technical ability and maturity beyond his teenage years. Carvalho’s boundless energy transformed a team that was ponderous and predictable under Parker into an outfit that offered a revitalised Aleksandar Mitrovic the sort of supply that the Serbian thrives upon.
Carvalho’s departure for Liverpool left Fulham with a gaping hole in Silva’s tactical plan. The head coach was adamant at the end of last season that he would not neuter his style for the Premier League challenge ahead: even if Fulham’s recent experiences of the top flight suggest that an open approach is asking for disaster. The 4-2-3-1 system that saw Mitrovic plunder an astonishing 43 league goals was dependent on a number ten who roamed not just around a physical centre forward but got behind him at times and occupied defenders, who were already fretting about stopping our number nine.
The brutal truth of the matter is you can’t replace a phenomenal talent like Carvalho. Clubs like Fulham don’t have the financial capability, with a billionaire backer constrained by FFP, to buy a ready-made replacement and talents like him emerge one in a blue moon – even from an exceptional academy. The closest players on the club’s books to the mercurial talents of the young man at Melwood are probably two Welshman: Harry Wilson thrived as a number ten under Frank Lampard at Derby, but moving him into the middle, would necessitate the purchase of a right winger and remove his devastating ability to drift in on his right foot. The tremendously talented Luke Harris enjoyed a remarkable season for Fulham’s under 23s and will likely feature for the senior squad this season, but Silva and his coaches will be understandably reluctant to place too much pressure on the shoulders of a seventeen year-old.
The domestic options were apparently not all that appealing. I understand the Whites were interested in acquiring Morgan Gibbs-White, the Wolves number ten who tore Fulham to shreds on the final day of the season at Bramall Lane when operating as a centre forward, but were deterred by a ridiculous asking price for a permanent move. That led Silva and the club to scour Europe and then the world for alternatives – and a very old target quickly came to prominence. Andreas Pereira, the youngster who Sir Alex Ferguson launched a charm offensive to persuade to come to Carrington, was a prominent part of United’s under 18 and under 21 sides, starring in the UEFA Europa League and FA Youth Cup in 2014 and voted as the club’s under-21 player of the year the following season, when he was a rewarded with a Premier League debut.
Pereira’s first senior goal for United – against San Jose Earthquakes on the pre-season tour of America, earned him a first senior start, which he marked with a superb free-kick against Ipswich in the League Cup and opportunities in both the Champions’ and Europa League. Jokanovic was keen to sign the youngster on loan to add creativity to his side in the absence of an injured Tom Cairney, but the deal was vetoed by Fulham’s then data analyst – whom the head coach identified as the roadblock in a fiery post-match press conference.
Pereira’s United career continued to offer plenty of promise and there were eye-catching cameos in the senior side but most of his development came on loan, initially in Spain, where he was the creative force in a struggling Grenada outfit before playing a key role for Valencia as they finished fourth next season. Back at United, Pereira won the club’s goal of the season for his first Premier League goal against Southampton in 2019 – a sensational strike – and he was part of arguably Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s finest hour, when the Red Devils roared back from a two-goal deficit to knock Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions’ League on a memorable night at the Parc des Princes.
Such was the success of Pereira’s most recent loan spell at Flamengo, where his versatility saw him impress in the number six and eight roles in the midfield, that Erik ten Hag – the Brazilian international’s former coach at PSV Eindhoven – was eager to keep him at Carrington this summer. But, rather like Wilson at Liverpool, Pereira was ready to lay down roots and play regular football. He wasn’t initially convinced by Fulham’s initial approach having enjoyed his time in Brazil, but conversations with Rodrigo Muniz and Silva, who clearly sees the perceptive playmaker as a Carvalho replacement, persuaded Pereira to sign up for a second crack at the Premier League.
At 26, the technically-gifted midfielder is eager to fulfil his long admired potential. He needs a coach who will trust in him and a project that appeals. Pereira’s introductory interview with FFCTV yesterday underlined that he has both of those with Fulham. There’s never been any doubt about his ability. Pereira’s former youth team coach at United, Paul McGuiness, was convinced ‘he could be a star’. He’ll add a spark to Fulham’s attack, with the confidence to take opponents on, and arrives as a set-piece specialist. He might be versatile but his best position is behind the front man, where Fulham are crying out for energy and a final ball following Carvalho’s departure.
He may not have an established Premier League pedigree but plenty of top flight misfits have flourished at Fulham. Think of how loved Chris Baird, John Pantsil and Bobby Zamora became at Craven Cottage – and how pivotal all three were to Roy Hodgson’s remarkable success. Pereira, like his head coach, has unfinished business in the English top tier. Just like Silva, he’s ready to prove the doubters wrong.