There is a buzz around the Manchester United academy again. With so many talented youngsters impressing each and every week, it feels as if it’s simply a race to the first team. For so many of these boys it might just be a case of when they make it, rather than if.
The junior sides are stacked with talent. In United’s Under-18’s side alone there are high hopes for Angel Gomes, DJ Buffonge, Callum Gribben, Tahith Chong and Indy Boonen. With so many attacking options in one team, it’s easy to overlook a player who makes the rest of it possible. Callum Whelan is the heartbeat of the team, the metronome. He is the conductor of the symphony of brilliance in front of him and he gives this team the platform to go on and thrill with care-free attacking football.
Whelan is a talented midfielder who often operates as the single pivot in a 4-3-3 formation. Like many players at Manchester United, he is adept in multiple roles, including wide positions, but it seems he has found his home at the base of Kieran McKenna’s midfield.
His quality in possession of the ball brings out the best in the players around him. One of his most impressive performances came in last season’s FA Youth Cup against Queens Park Rangers. He scored a fine goal but also provided the assist for the winner. Whelan fed Marcus Rashford with an excellent through ball and the United striker was brought down by the keeper to earn United a penalty. Rashford stepped up to score and take the headlines, but it was a moment created by the brilliance of Callum Whelan.
He’s doing it again this season, too. Sitting in the deepest position of the midfield three, Whelan is the single pivot in a system designed to get the most out of the plethora of attacking options available to Kieran McKenna. While Whelan sits, DJ Buffonge and Angel Gomes play either side of him and are freed up to express themselves in the attacking third. Like Busquets to Xavi and Iniesta or Carrick to Scholes, Whelan is the calming influence that protects and dictates the play from a deep position, allowing the players around him to flourish.
Whelan made his debut for the Under-18’s in October 2014 as a fresh-faced sixteen year old, coming on as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers. He capped an excellent personal campaign with his first start for the Under-18’s in the final game of the season, a 4-2 defeat to Middlesbrough.
Now at 18, Whelan is a more senior member of a youth team that features the prodigious talents of Chong, Gribbin and Angel Gomes. There can be no doubting Whelan’s influence, even if he’s not as flashy as some of his teammates. The youngster is an excellent passer of the ball and his quality in possession shines through on almost every occasion. U18 coach Kieran McKenna spoke to the official Manchester United website about Whelan, saying:
“A very popular lad in the dressing room – a bubbly and positive character who is a really good technical midfielder. He controls the game and has been massively integral to the team but has been a quiet part of some of the success the forwards have had due to their link-up play.
“He’s provided really good service and has been a big part of it. I feel there is a lot of development still to come too.”
The brief comparison to Michael Carrick is important. I’m not suggesting Whelan is the same player, or that he will emulate United’s no.16, but he does offer similar qualities that the first team will be missing sooner rather than later. The issue of replacing Carrick is already starting to rear it’s ugly head. Sitting in one of their junior sides right now, United have a player who is familiar with a deep-lying midfield role, comfortable playing in a 4-3-3 system and has shown an ability to protect more expansive, attacking midfield players alongside him, whilst allowing them to flourish naturally. A good passer, intelligent football brain, English. Who does that describe, Michael Carrick or Callum Whelan?