Facundo Pellistri had been waiting two and a half years for those 10 minutes

While sitting among the substitutes in Old Trafford’s home dugout last night, if Facundo Pellistri wanted an example of how long he might have to wait to make his Manchester United debut, he only needed to look at his side’s goalkeeper.

Tom Heaton’s United bow eventually came last season — five months into the veteran goalkeeper’s second Old Trafford spell, as a second-half substitute in a dead rubber against Young Boys, nearly 20 years after signing his first professional contract at the club. And now, Heaton was finally making his first start.

Thankfully, the 21-year-old winger would not have to wait as long as Heaton did. Now, 827 days after arriving in Manchester, his moment had finally arrived. And although this was just a late cameo in a Carabao Cup quarter-final against Charlton Athletic, it was also the 10 minutes that Pellistri had waited nearly two and a half years for.

Even then, the first couple of them were relatively uneventful. Pellistri’s initial touches on the ball as a United player were nothing to bring a crowd to its feet. The next few were, though. The next three of them, to be precise.

Leading a counter-attack, sprung after Harry Maguire’s header to clear a Charlton Athletic free kick away, his first touch was fine but put him in danger, turning him into the path of a rapidly approaching George Dobson. Yet Pellistri’s second touch took the ball away from Dobson, evading the challenge entirely, and his third set him back on his original course.

It was an ‘elastico’: a piece of skill, in other words, that whipped a coo of appreciation around Old Trafford and sprung one of the stranger United careers of recent times back into relevance.

At this point, it is only right to highlight that Pellistri was playing against League One opponents who, for nearly 90 minutes, had made enough of a nuisance of themselves to keep the score within one. Upon the Uruguayan’s entrance, Charlton had to push their tired bodies in search of the equalizer to force extra time. The game was becoming stretched.

It was exactly the type of opportunity that a tricky young winger hoping to make an impression would enjoy. It was the type they should expect to enjoy. Yet, it was also the type of opportunity that Pellistri’s patience and perseverance over the past couple of years deserved.

He also deserved something tangible to show for it, and that arrived with the assist for United’s second. Pellistri earned it by taking one of several brilliant Casemiro passes into his feet first time, then running at the Charlton defense, enough to tempt Eoghan O’Connell out of position so Marcus Rashford would be through one-on-one.

Perhaps Pellistri’s most impressive moment had come just before that, though, while United were still just a single goal up.

As Charlton tried for their equalizer and Lisandro Martinez dispossessed Miles Leaburn, the ball broke loose inside United’s penalty box. The danger was clear but Pellistri was onto it the quickest, riding the pressure applied by Jack Payne, spinning 180 degrees with the ball and carrying it out of danger, resetting the play and putting United on the attack again.

It was the type of composure that attacking players who have only just celebrated their 21st birthday rarely show, yet he demonstrated the same awareness and intelligence for United’s third, again pulling O’Connell out of position, only this time making space for Casemiro to thread Rashford through.

This night was a long time coming for Pellistri, perhaps even longer than it seems. United’s scouts responsible for unearthing South American talent first began monitoring Pellistri in 2017, reporting back to their superiors and continuing to track him over the subsequent years, through his breakthrough into Penarol’s first team squad and eye-catching appearances in the Copa Libertadores.

There was enough excitement upon his arrival that he could immediately be a factor in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first-team thinking. Pellistri was seen to offer variety in an attack that was too often predictable. But, in hindsight, that was always expecting too much from an 18-year-old plucked out of the Uruguayan top flight.

Instead, despite earning a reputation among teammates and United’s staff as a dedicated and diligent young player, to say his opportunities have been limited is an understatement. Before this cameo, his involvement at club level this season amounted to 66 minutes in an EFL Trophy trip to Barrow with the Under-21s.

Given that, you might imagine that Pellistri would fall among the “unimaginable” number of “average” signings that Ten Hag bemoaned only a few days ago. However, in his post-match press conference, the increasingly frank and straight-talking United manager praised the youngster’s performance — “really lively, good actions, good assist for 2-0” — and it was unprompted.

When asked about the prospect of arranging a loan for Pellistri before the end of the month, Ten Hag did not exactly rule it out – but he did not rule it in either. “I see a future in him,” he said. “He’s doing really well and we have to see what is the best. You see he is progressing.”

This is an international player, after all, now in double figures of caps with Uruguay, with more World Cup appearances than he has for his club. Ten Hag praised Pellistri not just on his performances in Qatar last month but also on his display in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Everton on his return.

It was hard not to see this debut as his reward, and the message from his manager was clear: “I say well done, better, keep going.”

Although, whether Pellistri will want to “keep going” without better prospects of playing time is the question. His representatives in Uruguay have been vocal about his need for regular first-team football, a fair concern after waiting so long for an opportunity at United.


Pellistri featured for Uruguay at the World Cup in Qatar (Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Pellistri embraced his two loan spells at Alaves in the past couple of seasons as opportunities to improve. “The best thing for a player is to play, and for a young player, to get experience,” he said The Athletic during his second spell. Yet, even then, his 33 appearances in La Liga were made up of only 11 starts.

“I am looking for minutes. I want to play, to start, to get experience in different types of matches,” he said. “When you come on as a substitute, the match story has already been written.”

It is a fair point, except the story had not been written when Pellistri stepped on the pitch on Tuesday night. Instead, he became the story of the night. And if that helps to reinvigorate his United career, perhaps even his long wait for this debut will have been worth it.

(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)


The Athletic‘s Spanish football coverage has expanded…


.

Leave a Comment