Manchester United Academy – The production line of great young players


“A player from our youth development levels has been included in each and every one of our first-team matchday squads since October 1937, a remarkable record unmatched in football and one which we are rightly proud of.”

Official Manchester United website; The History Of United Academy

The trend of youth teams striving to reach elite level sport by the time they can be considered for first team has seen an upward trajectory in the past two decades majorly in European football. While for a club of Manchester United’s stature, it could appear to be a billion-dollar project at the forefront to have an ever-increasing setup of Academy graduates lining to play for the first team, underneath it is more than that just bills of money. 

The Fergie Fledglings also known as Class of 92 are a proof to this. 

The 1999 treble winning team is a standout example of success which involved combining youth with experience. The explosive Eric Cantona and Roy Keane paired with David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Gary Neville went on to achieve glory in the truest sense of the term. 

Fast forward this a decade or two later, the blueprint of club success and growth remains right out there – only if a manger wishes to accommodate it of course which sadly only happened once despite changing three managers in Louis van Gaal, David Moyes and the chosen one Jose Mourinho post the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson i.e., the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer way

A piece on Manchester United’s Academy isn’t complete without mentioning the man who is responsible for holding the fort together in recent years. Having spent over two decades in the industry, Nick Cox is the person responsible for creating the pathway at United’s Academy which instills a practice of being hardworking while having the right set of skills. An ever-growing hunger to evolve merged with a sense of reality.

Cox [Head of United’s Academy] in an interview recently with the Forbes Magazine mentioned about how the Academy’s end goal is more than just supplying the first team with standout players who can add value to the club. The experience of joining the Academy is an all-encompassing one. He added

“It’s about giving young people an amazing childhood experience that sets them up for life, that is going to give them a set of experiences that they can transfer to any walk of life and be successful. It’s about making sure that we don’t put football so central to the plan that it is detrimental to other areas of childhood. We don’t want to compromise childhood since you only get one chance to that.”

This, to a huge extent, speaks about the psychology of people managing the club Academy who on the off chance of scouting/growing a generational talent have relevant questions which need answering.

Q) Has the player recruitment policy been set in tandem with the club ethos?

Q) Is the coaching module adapting to the player needs?

Q) Is the player loaning officer thinking off what is the next good trajectory for a said player who can’t make it with the first team? 

The plan for United’s recruitment drive has obtained clarity with Cox making a mention of how “you pick a different strategy based on needs each year” with a plethora of youngsters being added in the previous season with the average age across the U23s squad being 18. 

Cox in an interview with the Athletic mentioned how both Solskajer and the club have benefitted from the appointment of the Norwegian. “It absolutely helps the equation when you have a manager who understands our history, the commitment to youth, and has relationships with people in the Academy on arrival.” 

The ideology at Manchester United with respect to their Academy has never been clearer. 

A part of that United DNA is to continue with a core of domestically brought up talent in the first team because that is what the fans both on the match-day and abroad associate the most with about the club.  

Keeping aside the flashy one touch football, the club has been incredible in their dealing of the Covid situation. On an instance where the club came through by not releasing the Academy players during the first wave. 

One thing which stands out in the approach at United Academy is that they don’t believe in seeing players as a binary entity. Dealing in success and failure is an important way of measuring tangible success but the concept of investing in an individual, enabling him to enhance his potential while keeping the larger picture of enjoying the game intact is far more relevant. 

Of course, as a part of the process players are released because at the end, the modus-operandi, if you may, is to lay the foundation of a professional footballer who goes onto play football at the very highest level. There are kids who may not fit the metrics for whatever reason; just like there are kids who will go on to play football for the first team. 

In an interview, Ed Woodward while speaking about his vision for the previous season had mentioned how the club needs to have a “winning, attacking football with X-Factor players and giving the youth a chance.”

There should be a sense of humbleness and arrogance in them. Humble when you are wearing club suits and completing autographs and arrogance when you don the club jersey and step foot on grass. 

While we are at addressing vision for the club, Solskajer has shown that while his long-term vision of the club takes a lot more sincerity than the managers before him, he needs silverware to show for the progress he has made at the club. And while his plans of creating a legacy for himself by buying big for one are well in place, he doesn’t hesitate in building on to it. More notably so by giving the youth an opportunity at the club. 

There is more to this.

With the likes of Dean Henderson, Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams, Shole Shoretire, Anthony Elanga, who is next in line to make an Old Trafford appearance? 

A 19-year-old English center half Teden Mengi who despite his age has signs of being a top professional. Having captained the U18s to an FA Youth Cup semi-final, Mengi earned himself a call to the first team against LASK in the 2019/20 Europa League season. 

As it stands, he is currently due for his second loan spell with Derby County under Wayne Rooney since he is behind Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf, Eric Baily, Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones in the pecking order with a likelihood of United investing in a new centre back. However, from the looks of it, his near perfect professionalism has him take his game to the next step with focus from successful pass completion and ball retention to finding spaces in midfield and progressing the ball forward similar to how Maguire does it. 

Next up is Ethan Laird, the Manchester United loanee who stood out in his time at MK Dons and makes to look a mark on Solskjaer to earn a first team call up more so with the manager not happy with current right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s attacking output. Coming at the back of an impressive 25 appearances campaign in senior football and having already made two appearances for the Manchester United first team in Europa League group stage, he is eager for first team minutes. 

The one player who is eyeing more attention than any with his integration to the first team for pre-season is James Garner. Having the technical superiority to play as a six or an eight with ability to score of either foot, Garner stood out the most in all loanees. With the current first team in need of a progressive out and out playing central midfielder, Garner could be the solution if United were to fail at acquiring one from the market; something that at the moment looks increasingly likely. 

He has added parts to his game moving forward which were evident in his time at Nottingham Forest so much so that the club came calling for another loan spell.

There are a few other names that pop up when you consider the U23s and U18s Academy roster such as central midfielder Dylan Levitt, Czech goalkeeper Matej Kovar or the 18-year-old Hannibal Mejbri, who plays best at number 10, having already played a part both for Neil Wood’s U23 side and almost making the cut for Solsjkaer’s first team if it weren’t for some rather unfortunate luck.

With Manchester United edging closer to challenging the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea or Liverpool, the idea would be to spend big and acquire quality but rest assured with Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Cox the balance would need to strike well with the academy graduates having ensured a steady trajectory to the first team for the aforementioned players. 

There seems to be certain sense of ambiguity when it comes to first team football or a certain sense of frustration when you talk about the owners or lack of silverware at the club, but the club’s youth system is in safe hands with an onwards trajectory. 

Written by Dheeraj Pandey

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