In spite of the season being cut short with the business-end still to be conducted, whatever happens, the 2019/20 season will go down as being an extremely successful one for Manchester United’s Academy on a number of levels. I will get to this year’s Academy (under 18) side towards the latter part of the article, but given the successes of various Academy Graduates at first team level this season, I felt it was best to start there.
Academy Graduates Stepping Up As Key Players First Team Players
2019/20 has been the season that has seen Academy graduates Marcus Rashford (22) and Scott McTominay (23) step up to be key players and leaders in the United first team, in spite of their tender age.
Rashford in particular has kicked on and shown the level of consistency that eluded him in previous seasons. In October, Rashford reached 50 goals in all competitions for United. He achieved the feat in fewer games than Cristiano Ronaldo did for the club. The feat is made even more impressive considering the contrast in standard between the all-conquering United sides Ronaldo began with and the ineptitude Rashford has had to contend with over the past few seasons.
To put into greater context where Rashford is in his development, after 200 appearances for United, Rashford has 64 career goals and 31 assists. Thierry Henry’s record after his first 200 senior appearances was 50 goals and 11 assists. Cristiano Ronaldo’s record was 47 goals and 41 assists. There shouldn’t be undue pressure on Rashford but his trajectory is very promising. The attitude he has shown also suggests that he won’t allow the hype to get in the way of him making the most of his undoubted ability.
A fitting image was captured of Rashford celebrating his 50th goal for United in front of Academy graduates James Garner, Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood who applauded while warming up on the touchline. If the 3 Academy hopefuls ever needed a role model, on and off the pitch, to showcase what it takes to make the step up from the Academy to the first team, then they don’t need to look any further than Rashford.
Although he hasn’t grabbed as many headlines, Scott McTominay has shown that he is a player that United now rely massively on. United’s worst run of the season coincided with McTominay being out injured. The work rate, energy, aggression and leadership skills that McTominay brings are all characteristics that United have been sorely lacking in recent years. The importance of having a midfield general with these characteristics cannot be understated – Jordan Henderson has been one of the key reasons Liverpool have had such levels of consistency in recent times.
As with Henderson, I often questioned whether McTominay had enough ability to accompany his persona in order to take his game to the next level. This season McTominay has shown the confidence and assuredness to display these abilities, with his passing range a particularly impressive facet. I would expect McTominay to kick on further over the coming seasons and become one of the most influential midfielders in the league.
Greenwood and Williams Emergence
Although regular Academy watchers would have predicted Mason Greenwood to make a big splash on first team football, not many would have touted Brandon Williams to have had the success he has had. Last season, Williams had to settle for a place on the bench in United’s under 19 UEFA Youth League side, with Ethan Laird and Lee O’Connor the first-choice fullback options. Williams’ rise has been testament to his exemplary attitude and mentality in stepping up to first team football with such ease. Williams has a rugged edge, which has been another characteristic sorely lacking from recent United sides.
I would say that Greenwood has been a revelation, but such was his level of performance at Academy level, his first team performances have almost been expected. As impressive as his array of goals have been, off both feet, it was his brilliant effort against Watford that was more in line with what Academy watchers would have been used to in recent seasons. If you have 10 minutes to spare, it is worth watching Greenwood’s Academy goals for United. It contains a vast array of goals worthy to win goal of the season awards at any level. It will be interesting to see what Greenwood’s goal and assist ratio amounts to after his first 200 games for United – the smart money would be on him topping Rashford’s numbers.
Solskjaer has made a point of occupying the current squad roles with Academy graduates. This is a smart move as Academy graduates carry the DNA of the club, which can be passed on to new recruits. In recent years, particularly under Louis van Gaal, the squad contained far too many players who didn’t understand the meaning of representing Manchester United, but Ole has addressed that balance.
Aside from the aforementioned Academy graduates, fellow graduates Axel Tuanzebe, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes, James Garner all form part of Solskjaer’s first team squad. 15 of the 18-man squad that faced Astana in the away Europa League game were Academy graduates. Of that crop, expect Ethan Laird to make a big impact in the coming seasons. Reports that United are considering letting Diogo Dalot go is unsurprising given Laird’s ability. Laird could prove to be a very useful alternative to Aaron Wan-Bissaka in home games against weaker sides who sit back, where we need more attacking intent from our fullbacks to break the opposition down. Laird is a serious threat going forward and would add a lot to the current side in that regard.
Another Academy graduate who has had plenty of game time this season, albeit at a different club, is Dean Henderson. Henderson has equalled Allison’s clean sheet record this season in the Premier League and has been touted to be England’s number 1 sooner rather than later.
From a long-term financial perspective, incorporating Laird and Henderson into the squad at the possible expense of Dalot and De Gea may prove to be a sound decision in years to come. De Gea’s £375,000 per week wage has raised the ceiling for others when negotiating contracts with United. Given that Allison is earning £90,000 per week it puts into perspective how ludicrous De Gea’s wage package is. Matej Kovar could also be factored into whether we eventually consider selling De Gea, with many believing that his performances for the under 23’s have been the most impressive any Academy goalkeeper (including Henderson) has produced in many years.
Although league form has been patchy this season, the current Academy crop still managed to beat a very impressive Manchester City side away from home, and are the first United Academy side to reach the semi-final stage of the Youth Cup since 2012.
Hannibal Mejbri is the highest profile member of the squad, following his move from Monaco, for a potential £9.3 million last summer. The transfer fee raised eyebrows but Mejbri has stepped up to the plate and his performances have shown why United were so keen to sign him. Mejbri reminds me of a young Cesc Fabregas and can operate as a number 8 or 10. His spatial awareness is excellent and always seems to find dangerous pockets of space for himself to threaten the opposition. He strikes me as the kind of player that would thrive playing with good players and is often on a different wave length to the other Academy players.
Although he can sometimes cross the line and receive needless bookings, Mejbri is a winner and has great work ethic. He also has a persona that United fans will be drawn to and has the charisma of a ‘proper’ United player. Mejbri has taken to under 23 football with ease when given opportunities so I can expect him to get first team minutes in the not so distant future.
Centre-back Teden Mengi, has led by example as captain this season and has put in some monstrous displays in the Youth Cup run. Mengi’s performances this season have been on a similar level to what Axel Tuanzebe produced at the same age grade and the hope will be that Mengi can follow a similar career trajectory.
Winger Anthony Elanga came into this season on the back of some very impressive performances for Sweden in the UEFA Euro under 17 championship, with his 2 excellent goals against a very strong France outfit a highlight. Although Elanga has since had long spells out injured this season, whenever he has featured he has looked levels above under 18 football and has often toyed with opponents. When Greenwood was first being spoken about at under 14/15 level, with videos being leaked of incredible goals he was scoring at that level, videos were also being shared of Elanga’s talents. Although injuries have held Elanga back, he has the pace and direct style of play that Solskjaer is looking for from his wide men.
Tahith Chong’s difficulties when given chances for the United first team should act as a warning to Elanga as to the step up from toying Academy fullbacks to negotiating with elite, first team players. Chong’s composure has left him wanting at first team level to date, although that is an area that Elanga may feel he has the edge on Chong, therefore could take to the step up with more ease.
Winger / number 10, Shola Shoretire, is an Academy player that United fans have heard whispers about for quite some time. He has often been mentioned in the Rashford / Greenwood level bracket of talent. Nicky Butt handing Shoretire his under 19 UEFA Youth League debut last season at the age of 14 only served to inflate the hype further.
Shoretire started the season slowly but has gradually shown his class and has grown to be a key player, in spite of having 2 more seasons at this level to come. He was United’s best player against Wigan at Old Trafford in the Youth Cup quarter final which underlines his capacity to step up to the big occasion. Shoretire is similar to Raheem Sterling in style. He has a low centre of gravity, quick feet and is very direct – always looking to get a shot away or make something happen. Of all of the current Academy prospects, Shoretire is the one with the highest ceiling of potential so hopefully things go his way over the coming seasons.
Left-back Reece Devine has really kicked on this season and looks physically ready for first team football. Devine has arguably been more impressive at Academy level than Brandon Williams was, however whether he can show Williams level of character and mentality to make the step up to first team football is another question.
Other players have impressed at times such as Mark Helm, Charlie McCann and Charlie Wellens, although I must admit I was expecting more from Dillon Hoogewerf, who arrived with a big reputation from Ajax. We are yet to see other high profile signing Noam Emeran in action, however both Emeran and Hoogewerf will be underage again next season.
The Next Wave
In the coming seasons, Academy watchers can expect to see more of Zidane Iqbal who put in a hugely impressive performance for the under 18’s against Sunderland in March. 15 year-old Omari Forson, who has had a number of cameos for the under 18’s will likely be a key player next season also. Forson seems to be a key player for England at his age grade, which is often a better indicator of a player’s potential.
15 year-old Norwegian attacking midfielder Isak Hansen-Aarøen is due to sign from Tromsø in August when he turns 16. Hansen-Aarøen comes with a big reputation and has already scored for Tromsø’s first team in a friendly.
15 year-old Russian striker Sergey Pinyaev has been to Carrington regularly on trial and is expected to join when he turns 18. Pinyaev is said to be the most impressive trialist United coaches have witnessed in years. Given that Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli, was one such trialist in recent times, it bodes very well for Pinyaev.
Overall things are shaping up very nicely for United and the Academy conveyor belt will certainly be on hand to provide many more rich talents to the first team in the years to come.