Manchester United Mid-Season Academy Review – January 2021

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During the summer months, as Manchester United fans were exasperated at the ongoing – and ultimately futile – Jadon Sancho transfer saga; incomings at academy level were proving far more straight forward to get over the line, with 9 players arriving by the end of the transfer window.

Looming Brexit regulations (which prevent English clubs from signing under 18 players from Europe) forced United to commit to signing players sooner than possibly planned – players, who in previous years, the club may have preferred to scout for a longer period. Brexit or not, however, this recruitment drive has been badly needed.

Since Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba inspired United to win the FA Youth Cup in 2011, the club have fallen behind Chelsea and Manchester City in the recruitment stakes at academy level. This has been reflected in results since. Over the past 9 seasons, United haven’t made it past the Youth Cup semi-final, whereas Chelsea have reached 8 of the 9 finals, winning 6. City have made it to 5, winning 1 – losing to Chelsea in 3 of those finals in a row between 2015 and 2017.

Of course, results are secondary to player development at this level – providing first team players is the name of the game. On that front, you could easily argue that United are ahead of Chelsea and City, however we cannot expect that to remain the case if the latter continue their dominance (results-wise) and monopoly on signing the best underage talents.

United’s summer academy additions have provided the requisite tonic to improve results so far this season, with United’s under 18’s 3 points clear of Liverpool, with a game in hand, in the under 18’s Premier Division North. This is in spite of the bulk of the eligible under 18 players actually playing for United’s under 23 team for most of the season instead (including 16-year-old Shola Shoretire and 17-year-olds Alvaro Fernandez, Hannibal Mejbri, Will Fish and Joe Hugill). This has meant that the core of the under 18 match-day squads have comprised of players who have another year, or two, to come at this level.

As for the under 23’s, although results have been inconsistent (to be expected given the age of the squad), performances have simply been a joy to watch, with the side recording 6-3 and 6-4 victories over Liverpool and Blackburn respectively in their last two outings. These high scoring victories have by no means been anomalies – with United scoring 4 in victory over Spurs and 5 against Brighton.

Below are my initial impressions of the summer additions, followed by an overview of how some of the other key players in the under 18 and 23 sides have developed so far this season:

Joe Hugill:

Hugill only turned 17 in October, but currently stands at just under 6 foot 3. He is yet to fill his considerable frame, but when he does, the young striker will be a force to be reckoned with. Hugill arrived from Sunderland in the summer for £300,000. He had already scored twice for Sunderland’s under 23 side last season, however there was far less hype around his signature, to that of fellow academy striker signing, Charlie McNeill, who arrived for £700,000 from Manchester City.

In spite of that, Hugill has outshone McNeill so far, and has shown to have a very impressive all-round game – testament to the coaching he received at Sunderland. In spite of his considerable size, Hugill has great feet; is very skilful; and has showcased plenty of precision and power when shooting off both feet. His hold up play is also a very impressive facet of his game, enabling him to bring fellow attacking players into the game. Given his physical stature and skillset, Hugill strikes a resemblance to Erling Haaland. He also mirrors Haaland in his purposeful, goal-hungry dashes towards goal with the ball.

Hugill’s rounded skillset has led to him being regularly involved with the under 23 squad this season (making his debut while still aged 16). At time of writing Hugill has 15 goals in 9 starts and 7 sub appearances for the under 18’s and 23’s this season. He is the 2nd top scorer in the under 23’s league with 9 goals, in just 5 starts and 5 sub appearances.

Alvaro Fernandez:

17-year-old left-back, Fernandez, arrived from Real Madrid in the summer, with Madrid academy followers pointing to the promise shown by 19-year-old left-back, Miguel Gutierrez (reportedly held in high esteem by Zinedine Zidane), as the major reason for Fernandez opting to leave – fearing his pathway to first team football would be blocked.

Judging by Fernandez’s performances so far, Madrid will be hoping Gutierrez does fulfil his potential, as they may well regret not tying Fernandez down. Fernandez has been excellent for both the under 18’s and 23’s this season. Although not blessed with searing pace, Fernandez always seems to have time on the ball and has been a constant attacking threat. He is reminiscent of Daley Blind in style of play, and like Blind, he has a cultured left foot and impressive passing range.

Alejandro Garnacho:

16-year-old left-winger, Garnacho, also arrived from the Spanish capital in the summer, although from the red half of the city. Having been the top scorer in the top division at under 16 level in Spain last season, Madrid-based paper Marca described Garnacho as ‘the jewel of the Atletico academy’ and based on his performances so far, it is easy to see why. Garnacho only turned 16 in July, but has looked at ease at under 18 level so far.

Garnacho is very direct and likes to cut in from the left wing onto his favoured right foot. He plays like a classic modern day ‘inside-forward’, and looks to have the requisite level of finishing to really excel in the role at first team level, in time. Garnacho has scored some very impressive goals for United’s under 17’s in the newly formed U17 Premier League Cup – seemingly finding that level (against players his age) too easy.

Charlie McNeill:

Although Joe Hugill has progressed quicker than McNeill (in terms of under 23 appearances), McNeill’s recent form suggests he won’t be far away from a promotion himself. It is clear watching McNeill that he is an old-fashioned ‘sniffer’, who lives for goals.

Some of his finishing has been deadly so far, with his second goal against Leeds, seen from 1 minute 35 seconds in this video, testament to that.

His 8 goals in 9 games to date for the under 18’s represents an impressive return. Where Hugill has shown more promise than McNeil so far has been in his all-round game and link-up play, but, having only turned 17 in September, McNeill has plenty of time to improve on that aspect of his game.

Isak Hansen-Aaroen:

Like Garnacho, Hansen only turned 16 this summer (August 22nd). Both players would still be eligible for the under 16’s had they been born a few weeks later. With this in mind, it is understandable that Hansen took some time to adapt to his new surroundings – and playing on grass regularly – having previously played mostly on all-weather pitches in his native Norway.

At 15, Hansen had already featured for his previous club, Tromso, at senior level in the Norwegian Second Division, underlining his talent. As each under 18 match passes, this talent becomes more evident.

Hansen is a classic playmaking number 10, with quick feet and an eye for a pass. He drifts past opponents in similar fashion to what we were used to seeing from Adnan Januzaj and Hansen’s compatriot, Mats Daehli, at academy level in years past. Although neither of the latter duo succeeded at Old Trafford, the hope will be that Hansen can use them as useful reference points, while forging his own path to succeed at the club.

Willy Kambwala:

Arriving for a reported fee of £3.6 million from Sochaux, France under-16 captain, Kambwala, was the most expensive academy addition this summer. Standing at 6’3 and of considerable brawn, Kambwala looked like a first team addition when images filtered out of his announcement on deadline day. The reality is that Kambwala, like Hansen, only turned 16 at the end of August.

One can be forgiven for wishing that Kambwala was indeed a few years older, and a first team signing, because based on his debut for the under 18’s, he looks to have all of the requisite qualities currently desired by Solskjaer at centre-back in the transfer market – with his pace, commanding presence, strength and quality on the ball, all evident (as highlighted in this video).

Others:

Shola Shoretire, has been a main-stay for United’s under 23’s this season – and has performed admirably, in spite of only just turning 17. Shoretire’s quick feet and dribbling skills are notable. He has regularly featured above his age grade for United (including making his Under 19 UEFA Youth League debut at 14, becoming the youngest ever player to feature in the competition), but to properly quantify his talent, when Shoretire has played at his own age level, he scored 65 goals in a single season for United’s under 15’s and scored 3 on his England under 15 debut. Shoretire’s display against Blackburn has been his highlight of the season, scoring a very impressive hat-trick to cap a fine performance.

Hannibal Mejbri has had some wonderful moments and performances for the under 23’s this season. Although still eligible for the under 18’s, Mejbri has been the leader of the under 23 side, frequently taking the fight to the opposition – sometimes literally! Although discipline is something that Mejbri needs to be conscious of if he is to make the step up, equally his abrasive style should quickly make him a fan favourite at Old Trafford in time.

If Mejbri can maintain the performance levels that he displayed against Spurs and Blackburn, then his potential £10 million transfer fee will begin to look like a snip. The challenge for him will be to add more goals and assists to his game if he wants to become a credible number 10 option for the United senior side in years to come. Conversely, Mejbri’s tenacious, effervescent style of play could potentially see him best utilised as a box-to-box, number 8 in a 3-man midfield or diamond, in time.

Anthony Elanga has had some very impressive displays in his first full season at under 23 level. It remains to be seen whether Elanga can be consistent enough in his end product to make it at Old Trafford, but he certainly has enough pace to satisfy what Solskjaer is seeking in his wide men. By all accounts, Elanga is an incredibly focused, hard worker, so he should make the most of his ability if he avoids serious injury.

Northern Ireland International holding midfielder, Ethan Galbraith, has been the surprise package of the season – and most improved academy player over the past 18 months. Having previously played second fiddle to James Garner and Dylan Levitt in the holding role, the latter duo’s loan moves have paved the way for Galbraith to stake his claim – and he has taken his opportunity with both hands. Galbraith is excellent technically, with a great passing range, but is small in stature, therefore is more of a deep-lying playmaker than a physical holding player. Given Billy Gilmour’s performances for Chelsea to date, that may well prove to be the vogue for holding players in years to come.

Right-back, Ethan Laird, recently recovered from a series of injuries that hampered him last season and has made a great early impression on loan at MK Dons. MK Dons will seemingly be deploying Laird mostly at right wing back, which should play to his strengths – with dribbling and getting to the by-line to deliver crosses a key feature of his game. While there are rumours that United are in the market for a more attacking right back alternative to Wan-Bissaka, one hopes that Laird can make enough of an impression in this loan spell to put his hand up to be that player.

Journalist Daniel Harris recently commented that Liverpool underage coaches rated Laird as the best talent in his age group at United – an age group that also featured Mason Greenwood. This highlights Laird’s considerable promise, but also signals how much injuries have held him back in recent seasons, given Greenwood’s incredible rise at first team level in that time. Let’s hope Laird’s luck changes from here on.

Uruguayan summer signing, Facundo Pellistri, has shown steady improvement match by match, for the under 23’s, since his arrival. Pellistri has extremely quick feet and is clearly a very intelligent footballer, regularly making smart runs and linking play well. Pellistri’s pace and work-ethic, combined with the above qualities (and relatively low transfer fee), make his signing a sensible one – especially with former Old Trafford favourite, Diego Forlan, providing his seal of approval in the process.

Pellistri secured a loan move to Alaves before the January transfer window closed. If I was to compare Pellistri to another player, it would probably be Juan Mata – albeit a pacier version of the Spaniard. Should Pellistri impress on loan, he may well take Mata’s place in the United first team squad next season – with Mata linked with a move back to Valencia.

United fans finally got a glimpse of Amad Diallo in action for the under 23’s in the 6-3 victory over Liverpool, and it was well worth the wait. Diallo looked a class above, against a strong Liverpool outfit. Aside from his two goals, Diallo was a constant threat and lit up the fixture. Diallo backed this performance up with another very impressive showing against Blackburn. Although, as touched on above, fellow summer signing Pellistri has performed admirably for the under 23’s, this level simply looks too easy for Diallo – which signals why he is being kept at the club, rather than also being loaned out.

I had the pleasure of watching some of Diallo’s UEFA Youth League performances for Atalanta from last season – most of which are up in full on YouTube. His performance against a very strong Manchester City side, featuring Eric Garcia, Ian Poveda (currently playing for Leeds United) and Tommy Doyle, was impressive enough to convince Manchester United officials to open discussions for his signature the very next day. He was the standout player, and key reason for Atalanta’s convincing victory, in spite of being 2 years younger than most others who featured.

Diallo looks to be most comfortable on the right flank, cutting in onto his favoured left foot. Although quick, he looks to be more of a playmaking winger in the mould of Ansu Fati and (cough) Jadon Sancho, rather than solely relying on his pace to beat defenders and create openings. His decision making also looks to be very good for a player of his age. All of these qualities would be welcome at first team level, where United’s current wingers are mostly suited to playing on the break. A playmaking winger in Diallo’s mould would make a big difference against teams who sit back, whom United have had difficulty breaking down.

There have been reports claiming that United rate Diallo as the second best under 19 talent in Europe (outside of the club) – number 1 being the brilliant Fati. Ultimately, the Ivorian should prove to be a serious coup, and a really exciting addition.

The Next Wave:

As previously mentioned, Brexit has made under 18 signings far more complicated for English clubs going forward. It has been rumoured that English clubs may look to work with Affiliate clubs in Europe to get around the issue – by sending European under 18 signings to the Affiliate clubs on loan until they are old enough to legally play in England. Either way, clubs will have to get creative in their approach to signing academy players in future – and the race to sign the best British players will likely become fiercer than ever before.

Testament to this is the number of Scottish prospects that have agreed to join English academies over the past couple of months. It is unclear how Irish under 18 players will be judged under the new regulations, however if there is wiggle room for their free movement to play/work in the UK, it is to be expected that a flurry of Irish players will also make the move to English clubs.

United have been linked with 16-year-old Irish midfielder, Glory Nzingo, who made his senior debut for Irish club St. Patricks Athletic, aged just 15. Ireland have a number of talented players who formed an all-conquering under 15 team in 2019 that went unbeaten in the calendar year, enjoying a 3-1 victory over England under 15’s at St. George’s Park along the way. Star of the show that day for Ireland, Kevin Zeffi, could well be another player United target, with Inter Milan and Juventus also said to be interested.

Coming up against Zeffi that day was Jobe Bellingham, brother of Jude, who has also been linked with a move to United of late. There is uncertainty around Birmingham City’s academy lifespan going forward – which contributed to the recent departure of Jobe’s academy team-mate, Calum Scanlon, to Liverpool. Having already put the charm offensive on for Bellingham’s parents in the attempts to sign older brother Jude, United may have unwittingly laid the foundations to sign the younger Bellingham brother in the process.

Liverpool were said to have pipped United to the signing of Scanlon, and have also recently beaten United to the signing of 16-year-old Celta Vigo centre-back, Stefan Bajcetic, completing the deal days before the new Brexit regulations came into play. The blow of missing out on Bajcetic is softened by the development of United’s under 15 centre-back, Habeeb Ogunneye. Ogunneye has starred for United’s underage sides in a number of positions and was recently called up by England at under 16 level – playing a year up. Insiders believe that Ogunneye is a ‘Greenwood level talent’, so it will be interesting to observe his development over the coming years.

Ogunneye is part of a very strong United under 15 team, where he and teammates, Ruben Curley and Finley McAllister, have regularly played above their age grade this season – even featuring at under 17 level at times.

16-year-old Russian striker, Sergey Pinyaev, who is said to have been the most impressive triallist United have had over the past 15 years (quite the feat given that Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard were two such triallists in that time), has been lighting up the Russian second division for his club, Chertanovo Moscow, this season. The following video highlights some of his, frankly, incredible performances. It is expected that Pinyaev will join United when he turns 18.

Final Thoughts:

To conclude this longer than planned piece (thanks for sticking with me), United’s academy foundations look to be very solid once again after a couple of years in the doldrums – echoing the recent trajectory and progress made at first team level. The odds are naturally firmly against all of the aforementioned academy players succeeding at the club, however with standards and results improving year on year at academy level, the hope is that 3-4 players will come through over the coming 2-3 seasons to add to an already youthful, fledgling first-team squad, currently comprising of 8 academy graduates.

The below depth chart highlights the current first team squad options (in bold); academy talents (in red); and reported transfer targets (in brackets) per position – ultimately highlighting that we’re in pretty good stead, and not too far away. Whisper it, but it seems that the clouds are finally starting to part and United can look forward to a bright future once again.

GK: De Gea, Henderson, Romero, Kovar
RB: Wan-Bissaka, Williams, Dalot, Laird (Aarons / Lamptey / Trippier)
CB: Maguire, Lindelof, Kambwala, Ogunneye
CB: Bailly, Tuanzebe, Jones, Mengi, Fish (Upamecano / Kounde / Konate / Torres / Badiashile / White)
LB: Telles, Shaw, Fernandez (N Mendes)
CDM: McTominay, Matic, Garner, Galbraith (Zakaria / Rice / Phillips / Soumare / Bissouma / Camavinga)
CM: Pogba, Fred (Saul / Sabitzer / Gravenberch / Bellingham / Aouar)
CAM: Fernandes, Van de Beek, Mejbri, Hansen
RW: Greenwood, Mata, Lingard, Diallo, Pellestri (Sancho / Grealish / Dembele)
LW: Rashford, James, Elanga, Shoretire, Garnacho
ST: Martial, Cavani, Hugill, McNeill, Pinyaev (Haaland)

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