From the Busby Babes to the Class of 92, Manchester United has a proud history of developing academy players, before bringing them up to the first team. In the recent FA Cup win against Watford, United fielded six players from the academy in their starting eleven. Back in December of 2019, United made it 4,000 games in succession in which at least one youth graduate has represented the Reds’ matchday squad. That record is still on-going, so who will be next to follow the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba into making their debuts?
Anthony Elanga has made an excellent start to life in the under 23’s after a permanent move up from the under 18’s this season. Six goals and three assists in 15 games earned him a chance to train with the first team squad of Christmas and he also played in the only pre-season game against Aston Villa. That taste of the first team squad seems to have inspired his performances this season. He is very similar to Marcus Rashford, coming off the left flank with blistering pace and lots of skill.
He won the prestigious Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Award last season and after putting Salford City to the sword, scoring in a 6-1 win, Gary Neville said that he was a “nightmare to play against”. With United recently signing Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri, both right midfielders, there is a big battle to try and make it into the United first team, but Elanga has shown that his performances warrant a chance.
Shola Shoretire has become a regular in the under 23’s this season, making the step up from the under 18’s and has scored two goals and laid on two assists in 12 games. These stats might not seem all that impressive, considering it is the under 23’s and he’s highly hyped, but when you factor in that he is just 16, yes 16, then the mind starts to wander. If he can play in the under 23’s at just 16, then how quickly can he make that jump up to the first-team? Mason Greenwood has offered the blueprint, albeit, Greenwood bypassed the under 23’s completely, such was his talent. Shoretire is a highly technical player capable of playing on either flank and is another winger that the club seems to be churning out at a rate of knots.
Recently under 23 manager, Neil Wood, stated that the 16 year old is already becoming the best players in his squad. High praise for someone so young, talk that was also afforded to Greenwood before his move to the first team squad. He has already trained with the first team, a sign that he is someone that Ole Gunner Solskjaer has an eye on. If he can continue his good form for the rest of the season, we may be seeing Shoretire a lot in pre-season and beyond.
Hannibal Mejbri, or just Hannibal as he is known, caused a lot of excitement when he joined United back in 2019. Another player making the full-time leap to the under 23’s this season, Hannibal is a central midfielder, who likes to get forward and create. His stats this season are impressive. Three goals and six assists in 14 appearances, but there have been times when he has struggled playing against stronger, physical players. This is the big difference stepping up from the under 18’s, especially as a 17-year-old.
Slightly worrying is that he has the tendency to show levels of petulance when thing don’t go his way. Sent off for a silly tackle against Southampton under 23’s, former United player Ben Thornley has warned the young Frenchman to watch his body language at points this season.
His quality is not in doubt though. His assist in that win against Salford City was sensational and United fans on social media got very excited, as was his slick finish in the 5-2 win against Brighton under 23’s earlier this season. It showed his ability in being able to take the ball running into the box, a quality that every team likes to have from their midfielders. It wouldn’t be surprised to see Hannibal make his debut in a cup game over the next year.
Joe Hugill is a born goal scorer. Signing from Sunderland this summer, the striker already stands at 6ft 2 at just 17 years old. He scored two goals in his debut under 18’s match and was immediately moved up to the under 23’s. He’s scored four goals in nine appearances, despite only starting two of those. In between he’s made another three appearances for the under 18’s, scoring four goals and creating another.
2020 had seen a large number of top young players across Europe join United, and although Hugill was believed to have a lot of potential, he wasn’t expected to make the jump up to the under 23’s quite as quickly as he had. Injuries helped his cause, but he has taken the chances and if he continues at the same rate, we could see him in the first team before too long.
If Joe Hugill does make the jump, he will likely be competing with Charlie McNeill all the way. They effectively already are. McNeill was signed from their rivals Manchester City in 2020, after leaving the United academy in 2014, and has scored six goals in eight under 18 appearances. It is said that he has over 600 goals in youth football, and in 2018 he signed a six year deal with Adidas. For City’s under 15’s he scored 110 goals and 38 assists in 72 games.
Those numbers are incredible and whilst it doesn’t mean it will transcend over to senior football, the signs are promising. Being a boyhood United fan will also increase the want for United fans to see him succeed. If he and Hugill both continue to develop, the United front line could be very tasty in the next five years.
Alvaro Fernandez is another 17-year-old that United recruited last summer. Signing him from Real Madrid on a free may end up being a steal in future years. He made his debut for the under 18’s scoring against Burnley, before settling in the under 23’s ever since. If you’ve had the pleasure to see him play, you will have seen a hugely technical player who despite enjoying the attacking side of the game, is more than happy defending. With Alex Telles signing this season to provide competition to Luke Shaw, Fernandez may be next to make the position his own in the next four or five years.
When your idol is Marcelo, you know what you’re going to get with a player and United fans will be eager to see the 17-year-old in action for the first team before too long.
In 2017, United beat Barcelona to the signing of Arnau Puigmal. At the time, he was seen as a one of the best Spanish players of his generation. Fast forward three years, and Puigmal is having his best season at United so far. Seven goals and two assists so in ten appearances for the under 23’s have led to high praise surrounding the teenager. The only caveat? His contract is expiring at the end of this season and Barcelona want him back.
Puigmal is equally adept at playing anymore on the right flank as he is centre midfield and United will be very keen to hold onto him. They lost Angel Gomes in similar circumstances last summer and will want to avoid this situation happening again. Whether or not, Solskjaer can find a place for him in the team is another matter. With the financial situation at Barcelona worsening, the Spaniard may feel that he will find it easier to force his way into the Barcelona side then the United side. United fans will hope he doesn’t as he meshes technical quality with a physical presence, something that would suit him well in the Premier League.
All seven of these players are highly thought of and will be determined to make it into the first team squad. Solskjaer has proven that he is more than happy to give youth players a chance. Tuanzebe has played more this season and the manager took a very youthful side to Astana, giving many first team debuts. Di’Shon Bernard and Dylan Levitt from the start – and three more in the second half, substitutes D’Mani Mellor, Largie Ramazani and Ethan Galbraith. Teden Mengi made his debut as a substitute later on in that Europe League campaign and James Garner, impressing on loan at Watford this season has made several appearances for United and is highly thought of.
Ethan Laird, Mengi and Garner are all players that could make the breakthrough into the first team squad in the next year or so. As previously mentioned, Garner has been impressing on loan and will be 20 when he returns to the club. Seeing Scott McTominay’s pathway into the first team will give him confidence as to making the side himself and a full season in senior football will be more than beneficial for him.
Ethan Laird has also been earmarked for the first team. He too is tasting his first action in senior football after moving to MK Dons on loan. He made his debut against Burnley in the FA Cup, playing for an hour and earning plaudits from his new manager. United had been linked to Kieran Trippier, whilst Timothy Fosu-Mensah is on his way to Bayer Leverkusen. If Laird impresses on loan, then he may be the man to fight with Aaron Wan-Bissaka next season.
Teden Mengi is highly rated by many at the club and joined the first team squad for training in the build up to the Carabao cup game against Manchester City. He may have only managed six minutes in his solitary game for United, but he has shown himself to be a leader and is the current under 23 captain. He also showed his will to win, criticising teammate Hannibal after the Frenchman posted a picture of himself and Chelsea youngster Pierre Ekwah on Instagram. The post came shortly after the 6-1 defeat to the Blues and Mengi was quick to highlight that the reason they lost was down to ‘too many friends and not enough enemies’. United fans will enjoy seeing a captain saying that, you’d imagine that would be Roy Keane’s opinion, and it bodes well for his future.
Written by Huw Rawlings