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Superstar Signings vs Youth Players: A Manchester United dilemma

Manchester United are a club that pride themselves in their prolific production of youth players and nurturing and developing them into full-blown first team players. Indeed, United holds the highly impressive record of having a youth academy graduate involved in every single matchday since 30 October 1937, a run of nearly 80 years.Many of these youth players have become outright legends of the club, look no further than the treble winning Class of ’92 for proof that you can, in fact, win things with kids.

And they’re not short of talent to continue that record today either. Marcus Rashford has established himself as an extremely promising young striker since exploding onto the first team scene last season, and Axel Tuanzebe has held his own in the three consecutive league games he has started recently. And for a further preview of what’s to come, Jose Mourinho has stated that some of United’s best and brightest youngsters are set for a chance to show their worth on United’s last league match against Crystal Palace.

But in recent years, United have been relying less and less on their youth products. The likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have come, disappointed, and left, and the only other academy graduate taking regular part in first team games is Jesse Lingard, a player more than a few fans feel don’t deserve such a role. United academy graduates litter the Premier League with many clubs in the division having at least one former United youth player who failed to make the grade at Old Trafford.

United have instead begun to look towards buying big name players to rely on instead. Sure, United were never prudes in terms of big money signings to begin with, but recently the scales have tipped far more towards the superstars than the youngsters, with players such as Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, and just last summer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and world record signing Paul Pogba (who technically is a former United youth player, in fairness) all signing for the club, coinciding with the diminishing influence of the youth players.

And right now, United are at a crossroads. They currently sit a lowly sixth in the league, where they are sure to finish, and yet despite a league campaign not quite good enough, they have an opportunity to play with the big boys in the Champions League by winning the Europa League next week. They have clearly underperformed this season, and have been for the last four, and they need improvements this summer. The question would then be, do they continue with bringing on the big names, with the likes of Antoine Griezmann and James Rodriguez having been linked already, a method that hasn’t done them too much good recently, or they begin trusting their youth players?

There is the understandable reactionary response of “if this strategy hasn’t worked then stop doing it,” and with the young talent currently at the club, there is some merit to that. With someone like Rashford only really performing this season once they are trusted with adequate game time, especially since Ibrahimovic’s injury, signing a big name attacker like Griezmann who would stand in the way of his playing time would starve him of the platform he needs to develop in becoming the player he is promised to be.

But taking this position means forgetting the very strong and obvious appeal of signing big name players: that they are very, very good players. When you look at where United are, and where United are expected to be, someone like Griezmann, who has averaged over a goal every other game since signing for Atletico Madrid, and someone who finished third for the latest Ballon d’Or, is a much safer bet to take United there compared to a youngster like Rashford.

The same could be said of positions elsewhere on the pitch. United’s defence, while vastly improved this season, is still a little low on quality players, with players like Chris Smalling and Phil Jones not quite up to par with what is expected of United’s starting defenders. While Tuanzebe has shown promise in his appearances this season, it is a lot easier to safely feel confident that United are ready to go back to more successful days with a  £40m signing leading the back line than a 19-year-old with four senior appearances to his name.

With United struggling to get near what they were a few years ago, and what the name Manchester United promises to be, they need to get back in shape immediately. And on paper, it makes much more sense to rely on players who have proven themselves to be great enough players to make them household names and command massive fees than relying on young players fresh off the youth leagues.

But then again, that does sound a lot like “you can’t win anything with kids,” does it? And we all know what happened last time.

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